Only about 25% of people who have email addresses have only one account. The rest of us have multiple streams of messages flowing in and out—sometimes as many as a dozen or more actively in use. In the posts so far that have discussed managing email, we haven’t focused on what to do if you have multiple accounts. Is it harder? Is it different? Are there any special considerations or tricks to make your life easier?

If you’re one of the majority of people with multiple email addresses to keep track of, I have good news! There are, in fact, two basic things you can do to reduce your email organization workload across more than one account:

  • Use only one mail client to avoid bouncing between apps
  • Follow the same organization methods and patterns for all accounts

Using these two tricks, you can reduce distractions and eliminate the need to think about different organization methods as your email flows in each day.

Step 1: Consolidate Your Mail Apps

If possible, centralize your email activity into one application instead of a bunch of different mail clients or web apps. Using multiple apps takes extra time and results in a disjointed experience. Even if you’ve learned how to use all of the different apps and clients efficiently, doing so still requires context-switching where there should be none. It’s hard enough to stay focused on a single task as it is; don’t make it harder on yourself.

Benefits of Consolidation

There are many factors that make this a good idea:

  • You only need one tool.
    Whether you prefer a web-based interface like Gmail or Fastmail, or an application like Outlook, Thunderbird, Postbox, or Apple Mail, consolidating multiple email accounts into one single interface can help you become more organized and efficient. With this system, all of your messages from each account end up in the same place. You can drop them all into the same inbox, or you can filter them into subfolders automatically. Most importantly, you’ll only have to go to one place for your email.
  • You can search through everything at once.
    With all of your messages in one place, it’s easy to find what you need quickly. A single search can look through your entire archive; there’s no need to check separately in each account just to find that one message you’re looking for.
  • Email account changes are as seamless as possible.
    If you need to get a new email address for any reason, you can just roll it into your existing setup as just one more identity that you can use to send and receive messages. You don’t have to go learn a new application or web interface. Simply incorporate the new address into your current workflow and organizational scheme.
  • You can create backups with less effort.
    If you’re concerned with backing up your email, it’s objectively easier to do if the entire collection is in one place already. Web-based (cloud) email providers might have this taken care of for you already, but if you manage your email through a stand-alone application like Thunderbird, explicit backups are more important to think about.

Note that you can still keep each individual address intact, and you can still send and receive messages as needed using each address. For example, in addition to my primary personal email address, I have a number of what are called “aliases” which I use to provide technical support correspondence on various projects. I’m able to send messages from all of these as needed, and when people reply to those addresses, their messages arrive in my centralized inbox just as if they’d sent them to my personal address—but my personal address stays hidden, to be shared only with those I actually want to have it.

One Important Caveat

There’s one instance where you might not want (or be allowed) to consolidate: work email accounts. Businesses often impose strict requirements on how you’re allowed to access your email accounts, either for administrative simplicity or legal requirements. You might not have the option to bring your work accounts into an email client (especially a cloud-based one) that also manages your personal email, or that isn’t officially approved by your IT department.

If this happens with you, don’t be too disappointed. Keeping work-related accounts separate has its own advantages. But if you can, try to have no more than two workspaces: one for work, and one for everything else.

Configuring Your Email Client

The basic approach to make this happen is this:

  1. Choose the single tool you want to be your central “email hub.”
    This will often be the application you already use for your main personal account. If you’re looking for a change, however, now is a perfect time. This isn’t an irreversible choice, but changing it again later is hard, so hopefully can easily identify your preference. Personally, I used Gmail for this purpose for a long time. I switched to Fastmail a few years ago. Both are web-based tools. Before Gmail, I used Thunderbird on Linux. (Yep, I’m one of those people.)
  2. Add each additional account using the configuration tools specific to your chosen tool.
    This process is similar for most tools and applications, but also unique in the specifics. You need to have your login credentials for each account, and sometimes further technical details such as incoming and outgoing mail server domain names. You can usually find support articles describing the process in the help section (or website) of the email client you’ve chosen. If you need mail server details, look for help from the provider for each account. Here are a few guides for some popular standalone tools and web-based mail clients:
  3. Create rules that filter or label incoming mail from separate accounts as desired.
    While this step is optional, you’ll probably appreciate having messages from certain accounts be labeled or sorted automatically into special folders. This is especially true for project-specific addresses, like Virtually all email clients allow you to create rules that will automatically apply special labels or move messages to other folders based on the account they arrived from, or at least the “To” address, which should be unique to each account anyway. I have some subfolders inside my top-level inbox for this purpose. Most emails land in the main inbox, but a few go in subfolders so that I can quickly identify them when I check my mail.

Step 2: Consolidate Your Technique

Whether you’re able to bundle everything into a single workspace or you need one for work and one for everything else, the second thing you can do to streamline the management of multiple email accounts is to implement the same organizational patterns for everything. You might have different specific categories for work vs. personal, or for a side project, but your basic approach should be the same. Build and use the same habits, enforce the same rules for which kinds of messages to keep, and so on.

Ideally, you’ll follow something like what we covered a few weeks ago in the Tame Your Inbox: 7 Ways to Defeat Email Stress post. If you train yourself to approach all accounts the same way, you be reinforcing good behavior instead of constantly trying to remember which method you’re supposed to use in each case.

Do One Thing

If you can benefit from consolidating some or all of your email accounts, choose the client you want to centralize in, then work on integrating one other account into that interface. Use the links above for instructions on specific email providers and clients, or leave a comment if you have questions about how to make it work with your current mail app.

With only one point of organization and management, you’ll undoubtedly breathe easier.

Have a question about how to do this in your own setup? Leave a comment below, and I’ll see if I can help get you started.

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