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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

How to Find That Email You're Looking For

As the volume of email we send and receive grows, with it comes a new problem: finding a specific message—or specific piece of information—within your vast archive.

Luckily, with a few premeditated keystrokes and some advanced search know-how, you can retrieve the information you need from your email more easily than ever.

Trick 1: Write Now to Find Later

One of the #1 things I do before sending an email is read it for searchability. I think about what I would search to find this email later on and then make sure those words are in the email.

In most cases, I don’t change a thing, but every once in a while I find that I’ve typed “the partnership we discussed this morning” instead of “the Mashable partnership we discussed this morning” or “Notes from meeting with Jack” instead of “Notes from meeting with Jack Smith from Amazon.” When searching for this thread in the future, I know I’ll search “Mashable” or “Jack Smith Amazon,” and without those quick fixes, I wouldn’t have found a thing.

Trick 2: Use Labels and Folders

If you’re a Gmail user, you may use labels—or you may choose to just archive everything into one big ocean of emails. I find that the best reason to consider using labels is search.

For example: My co-founder Kathryn and I email about the city of Chicago relatively frequently. Some of the emails are related to our sales expansion into the city, and others are completely unrelated (such as a conference happening there, or a candidate who is based there). Being able to search for “Kathryn Chicago” within the “Sales” label will help me find what I’m looking for much more quickly than searching all of my emails for that same query.

Same thing holds true for folders in other email clients like Outlook. Being able to search within a more constrained set of emails makes it easier to find what you’re looking for.

Trick 3: Know Your Email Search Commands

Finally, know your search options. The difference between searching for emails that include “Kathryn” anywhere in the body versus emails sent by Kathryn, sent to Kathryn, or with “Kathryn” in the subject line is quite significant. For Gmail, these are the top search commands to know:

  • To search for emails to or from a specific person: to:XYZ and from:XYZ
    Pro tip: For both of these commands, you can choose between the email address, a first name, or a last name, e.g.,, from:jane, from:smith. If someone has multiple email addresses, putting in his or her first or last name will bring up results from all of them.

  • To search for an email with specific words in the subject line: subject:XYZ
    Pro tip: If you want to search for a phrase, make sure to put it in quotes. Subject:NYC travel will look for emails with “NYC” in the subject line and “travel” somewhere in the body—you need subject: “NYC travel” instead.

  • To search for an email with an attachment: has:attachment.
    Pro tip: You can also search for specific file types using filename:doc, filename:ppt, and so on.

  • To search for an email with a specific label: label:XYZ
    Pro tip: If you click into a label in Gmail, it will already add that to the search bar, so you can use that as a starting point for your search.

  • To narrow the search to emails that are read or unread: is:unread or is:read

For more, check out Digital Inspiration’s great examples of these search commands in action.

Do you use any other tricks to keep your email searchable?

Photo of email courtesy of Shutterstock.