How to build a simple email folder structure to save you a ton of time!

A simple email folder structure that will save you a ton of time!

Email is a great communication tool. Can you imagine living your life without email? Probably not. However, it also has many downsides. One of them is that your email system does not come with a folder structure that supports you in managing your Inbox effectively. As a result, most people don’t have a structure in place that is simple to use, reduces the time you spend on email, and takes away the stress email often causes.

I will explain you how to build such a system. It is the first in the series on Email excellence. At the end of this post, you’ll find a short to-do list that you can follow to set up your email system and increase your email effectiveness immediately.

Four types of folders to have in your email system

You should have four different types of folders in your email system:

  1. System Folders
  2. Email processing folders
  3. Optional folders; for decluttering your inbox from non-urgent, or less-important messages
  4. Archiving folder(s)

System folders - the standard folders provided by every email provider

Every email service comes with a set of standard email folders. The Inbox, Sent items, Drafts, you name it. Every folder is there for a reason and using them is quite straight forward. It is not necessary to change anything about the system folders.

Email Processing folders - essential folders to process your emails while working through your Inbox

The purpose of these folders is to help you process your emails. By processing, I mean reading through your emails, deciding what to do with them and consequently moving/copying each email to the corresponding folder(s). I will talk more about how to process your emails in a different post in this series. For now, let’s focus on the actual folders you need to create.

Three folders are essential:

  1. Waiting For
  2. Action Items
  3. Calendar Items

Waiting For - track emails you have sent and that require a reply

Everybody needs a “waiting for” folder. It comes from the Getting Things Done (GTD) method by David Allen. You can use this folder to keep track of items you have delegated to other people. You are ‘waiting for’ an action by someone else.

Action Items - your actionable emails in one place

This folder contains copies of emails (not the originals), with important information about a future task which you have in your task manager. When you decide to work on this task, you will have all relevant information easily accessible in this folder.
Example: You receive an email from a client with a request to prepare a proposal. In the email, the client has included a lot of information which you need when working on the proposal. If you have a copy of the email in the Action Items folder, the relevant information is easily accessible for you when you decide to work on this task.

Pitfall: Do not use your action items folder, or any email folder, as a to-do list!
Now, there is a big pitfall of an “Action Items” folder: Being tempted to use it as your task list. Do NOT do this. For many different reasons, we want to move away from using your email as a to-do list. I strongly urge you to use a separate task manager.

Calendar items - all supporting information for your meetings together in one place.

This folder is similar to the “Action Items” folder, only now the content (again, copies of emails) relates to future appointments in your calendar.
A good example is a flight ticket or a hotel reservation. When checking in for your flight, or for your stay in the hotel, it can be very practical to have easy access to the reservation emails.

Optional folders to declutter your Inbox from not-so-important, or non-urgent messages.

With the previous three folders, you should definitely be able to manage your Inbox like a Ninja. Optionally, you can add some more folders. There are multiple reasons to do so:

  1. It creates clear focus on the most important emails you receive.
  2. It declutters your Inbox.
  3. It decreases the number of new messages in your Inbox, every day.
  4. It makes you more productive, because you can deal with similar messages in one go.

Some great examples:

To Read - long emails that are not urgent but which you do want to read

There might be quite a lot of (long) emails in your Inbox that are not directly very important to you, but which you do want to read at some point. Think about interesting blog posts, an article sent to you by a friend, company news, project updates, etc. Collect these mails in a “To Read” folder.

CC emails - create focus in your inbox with only messages where you are the main recipient

An average email account sends around 30 messages but receives over 90 messages per day. That means that, on average, every email has three recipients. So, most likely you will have many messages in your Inbox where you are a CC recipient. Per definition, these messages are less important. Collect these messages in a “CC” folder.

Newsletters - collect all newsletters in one folder and read them all at once

Most people are subscribed to multiple newsletters. Filtering them out into a specific Newsletter folder drastically declutters your Inbox.

Social updates - combine all of your social profile updates in one folder, so that you can check them all at the same time

Social media platforms send lots and lots of messages. Send your updates into a dedicated folder. Even better is to update your social media settings to reduce their number.

Meeting invites - have all meeting invites together to quickly see conflicts in your schedule

If you receive many meeting invites, it can make sense to filter them out automatically and look at them all at the same time. This way, you can easily check if meeting invites are conflicting in your schedule.

From a specific person - filter out messages from persons of note, so that you can read these emails first

If you receive a fair amount of emails from specific people, you could filter these out of your inbox into dedicated folders. The reason for this is clear: The person is important to you and when processing your email, you will want to read his or her emails first. Such people could include your manager, your partner, your biggest client, etc.

Group mailings - have all of your group conversations in one place

If you are a member of one or more Mailing lists, for example from your sports team, a committee you are part of, or a group of friends, then you might know that the number of messages you receive from these can be enormous. Filter these into a dedicated folder, and read them all at once.

Ads - have all great offers together in one folder

Emails with advertisements from Groupon, your grocery store, Ikea, or the local department store can all be very interesting if you are hunting for the best deals. However, it is very practical to just filter them out of your Inbox into a dedicated folder and go over them on a weekly basis.

Archive - the place to file all items that you may need at some point in the future

The fourth and final part of your email system is the Archive, or Filing system. This is the most difficult part of the system, as there is no right or wrong to it and it is highly personal. This is so important that I’ll dedicate a separate blog post to archiving. However, here I have included already a brief overview.

As soon as you have processed an email, you should either Delete it or Archive it. If there is a slight chance that someday you need that email again, keep it! Not in your Inbox, but somewhere in your Archive. Here are three strategies for building your Archive:

Using a ONE-folder Archive

This is my favourite strategy! Save all of your emails in one, yes ONE, Archive folder. Use the search functionality if you need to find something. In the 7 years since I’ve been doing this, only a handful of times has it taken me more than 20 seconds to find an email.

The good old-fashioned folder structure

In the old days, we used to store all of our paperwork in large folders. Each folder was given a name and then stored in a cabinet. When we started using email, we applied similar methods to Archive our emails. We can create as many folders as we want: For each Client, Project, Process, etc. 

The Hybrid version - the best of the ONE-folder and old-fashioned folder structure

I believe this could be the best option for most people. It combines the two strategies mentioned before. You create one large Archive folder for most of the emails you want to keep. In addition, you create specific folders in which you store specific emails. These are the emails of which you know already now that you need to refer to them collectively at some point in the future. I know this sounds a bit abstract but I will go into it in more detail in my next post.

Concluding

In this article, I have shown you how to build your email folder structure. I have suggested that you create three ‘processing’ folders and (if applicable) several optional folders which you can use to declutter your Inbox from not-so-urgent and not-so-important emails. Finally, I gave a first insight in how to build your Email Archive.

I hope you enjoyed this article! If you have any questions, or remarks, please comment below or reach out to me directly. Don’t forget, if you found this useful, share with your friends.

Helping you to Achieve more!
Rutger.


To-do list to get started immediately:

Create the following folders in your Email system. Start the folder names with a number like 01, 02 and 03 so that they always show up on top of your folder list:

  1. Waiting for
  2. Action Items
  3. Calendar information

Create the following folders, if they apply to you. Also here, consider numbering the folder names:

  1. To read: If you regularly receive long emails which are not so urgent but still important enough to read.
  2. CC-emails: If you receive a lot of emails where you are in CC.
  3. Newsletters: If you are subscribed to multiple newsletters.
  4. Social updates: If you receive many updates from social media.
  5. Meeting invites: If you receive many meeting invites per email.
  6. “Specific person” folder(s): If you want to be on top of emails coming from an important person, for example your manager or your partner.
  7. Group mailings: If you are part of 1 or more group mailings.
  8. Ads: If you receive many advertisements via email.

Set up your Archive as detailled in this blogpost.

Good luck and let me know how you get on!