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Use Less Folders to Increase Your Email Productivity

Folders and files, by Melissa Venable on Flickr

Over the years I have experimented with a number of different email folder strategies in an effort to increase my email productivity. I have created folder structures by team, project and person. I have created sub-folders that sorted email down to a single email in each folder. Every email that came in I would take 10-15 seconds to decide which folder it should go in. Usually it would come down to an internal debate about which was the best-fit folder since the email could be filed into one of several folders.

Does this sound familiar? I know several colleagues who have to scroll on a large monitor with their inbox window maximized to access all of their email folders.

If you need to pause at all to consider how to file an email, then you are negatively impacting your productivity. If you need to scroll to access your email folders, then you have too many.

The following folder structure is one that I have used for several years and through 3 companies. When I have tried changing my folder structure, I always end up coming back to these 5 folders. Every work email can be filed into one of these folders without thought and I never have a problem quickly finding an older email.

  • *Review/Follow-Up: This folder starts with an asterisk so that it stays at the top of the folders list. Any email that can’t be processed immediately, needs follow-up or has been delegated is temporarily filed here. I review this folder a couple of times per week to ensure that I’m properly following up on outstanding requests.
  • External: All emails that are received from non-employees are filed here.
  • Internal: All emails that are received from employees are filed here.
  • Misc: This folder is used to file emails that I want to keep on my radar but might not need immediate follow-up. An example of this would be a procurement order receipt, an email about upcoming tax changes or an API key. Usually this information has also been filed in Evernote but to keep the email easily accessible, I keep it filed in this folder.
  • Travel: I use TripIt to manage all of my travel but I save all travel confirmations to this folder so that I can easily access them if there is an issue with TripIt, need a receipt for expense reports or any other travel related emails.

That’s it. 5 folders. Simple and easy. It allows me to process my inbox and get back to project work.

Search, filter and rule setting capabilities within email clients have improved drastically thus making the need for dozens of email folders not necessary. It’s an old habit and one that you need to break if you ever want to consistently achieve and maintain inbox zero.

Question: How many email folders and subfolders do you currently use? Let me know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Melissa Venable

  • Greg Matthews

    I’m trying to move myself into a “Getting Things Done” world … and though it’s been painful, I have gotten myself down to 2 email folders: To Keep and To Read (for later). The goal is to process every email only once – and then delete it or put it in one of those files. I’m getting there!

  • BarbChamberlain

    So where do you archive emails for a specific project that you may need for later reference that no longer need follow-up or review? Are you running searches by folder or through all your email to find them?

    I find it interesting that the point of origin (external/internal) is highly salient for you. I work in an advocacy organization and regularly have email chains on a given topic that involve both types of senders. It’s more logical for the way my mind works to file all emails on a given issue under a folder for that than by sender; I’d end up jumping between External and Internal folders if I wanted to make sure I was responding to the most recent communication on the subject.

    What’s similar, though, is that like you I’m using the same approach to my folders now that I did in my previous position in a different field and with different responsibilities. I sort quickly and don’t waste time because I know how my mind works. Maybe that’s the real key, more than just having fewer folders.

  • Jamie Lynn Morgan

    Justin, Great tips and you are correct that email programs and apps are getting more sophisticated.

    I use the Mailbox app on my iPhone and iPad (it works with google, icloud, and yahoo currently). What I love about it, is the ability with a swipe of my finger to delete, put in a folder, or assign a follow up time.

    Using the follow up time/date feature I avoid having to even file some emails into a folder. It disappears from my inbox until the follow up date/time then reappears for me to deal with. The only emails that are kept in my limited number of folders now are client or project emails that need to be saved for future reference, but I am even working away from that by saving those conversations in a Springpad Notebook specifically for that client or project.