Email Archiving: How to organise your email folders and free up your time

 How to organise your email folders

Buried under a pile of emails? You are not alone…

Do you know that feeling, when you cannot find the email you desperately need in your email archive? Your heart-rate rises, your frustration grows. You search, scroll through multiple folders, scan email after email… but you can’t find the one you are looking for. It’s an enormous time-waster, and it causes us lots of frustration. But still, it happens to most of us all the time!

In this blog post, I will describe three strategies you can employ today to improve your email archiving. You will free up lots of valuable time, immediately. An archive that works for you is a critical factor in becoming highly effective when using email.

Why should you archive your emails in the first place?

This is the first question many of my clients ask me when we speak about archiving their emails. “Why can I not just leave my emails in my inbox?” they’ll ask. Or exclaim, “Archiving? That will cost me lots of time!” I understand these thoughts. It feels more practical to simply leave them in your inbox. However, here are some very clear reasons why you should create an email archive:

It creates laser-sharp focus

If you leave all your emails in your inbox, it becomes cluttered. And clutter diminishes your focus. As a study by Princeton Neuroscience Institute concluded: “When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus.” So, by archiving emails, you create a strong focus on those that still need action. No more scrolling to search for the important emails in your long list of messages!

It saves a lot of mental energy

Messages in your inbox which have already been dealt with still draw your attention. Subconsciously. They slowly drain your mental energy. Archive the messages you have handled, and save a lot of mental energy!

It saves you time

A good email archive saves you time when trying to find an email. The only condition is that you set up an archive system that corresponds with your way of working. If you have that, you will find your emails much quicker when you really need them.

You’ll also save time when deciding which email you will work on next. No need to scroll up and down through your inbox anymore when searching for emails that still require attention. Every email in your inbox still needs action, so you can start wherever you want!

Questions to ask when building your email archiving structure

When building your email archive, there are three questions to consider:

  1. How easy will it be to decide where to file an email?
    The more folders you have, the more difficult it will be to choose where to file an email, and the more time it takes to do so. Consider how many folders and sub-folders you ideally would like to have.
  2. What strategy will you follow to find your emails when you need them?
    Do you want to use search functionality, or do you prefer to navigate to a specific folder and scroll through individual emails?
  3. Do you need to refer to a specific set of emails collectively, sometime in the future?
    Can you already now think of any specific set of emails at which you do want to look at collectively, someday in the future?
    For example, emails with attached invoices. You may want to pay these at the same time at the end of a month.

Before you continue reading, take a minute to think about these questions. Re-read them, and rethink your personal criteria you currently use for archiving. Are they still valid? Or do you want to change things based on the pros and cons of each of the three archiving strategies below?

Three highly effective email archiving strategies

There are three main email archiving strategies used today. Although I have a very strong preference for the Hybrid approach, each of them has been proven to get you the benefits of proper email archiving.

The good old-fashioned folder structure

This can be compared to the old-fashioned filing cabinet, in which paper records are stored in folders. Each folder is named, and usually stored in alphabetical order. You can use a similar system for email, and create a folder for each subject, project, sender, client, etc. You name it, the possibilities are endless.

Take the following steps to put this in place:

  1. Sit down and map out the folder structure.
    Don’t create your structure ‘on the go’ because you will risk building a structure which is too extensive, unclear and difficult to use.
  2. Determine how you divide your folders.
    For example, create a folder for each project, client, process, email topic, process, etc.
  3. Limit the number of folders.
    Don’t create more than five to eight folders. Use subfolders where needed, but again, limit the number of them.

Personally, I don’t recommend this strategy to my clients. It is difficult to set up; it takes lots of time and energy to decide where an email should go; and regularly emails might fit in two or more folders. On top of that, it can be difficult to find an email again, because you’re not sure which folder or subfolder to search in.

However, despite these drawbacks, many people favour this strategy because they are used to it. Therefore, I still wanted to mention it here. If you want to adopt it, my advice would be to take your time and build a proper folder structure from the outset!

The ONE-folder structure

This is possibly the easiest strategy for archiving emails. It relies on search functionality, which is included in all modern email clients. To be honest, when I adopted this strategy back in 2009, it scared the **** out of me. I did not like to get rid of my old-fashioned folder structure. So, I decided to have two archives: one with my old folder structure, and in parallel a ONE-folder archive.

Guess what? After a few months, I decided to ditch my traditional folder structure. I fell in love with the ONE-folder archive!

Here is how to set this up:

  1. Create a single archive folder. You can name it what you want. Perhaps just “Archive”.
  2. For each email, if there is even a slim chance of needing the email in the future, move it to the archive folder.
  3. To find the email, use your email search functionality. Search for sender name, date or date range, company name, subject, or keywords. In my experience, in 95% of cases you will quickly find the email you are looking for when searching for either sender or date. In the other 5% of cases, using the other search criteria will produce results.

I love this approach, and it works flawlessly for me. I recommend that you use this email archiving strategy. And don’t be scared about re-finding your emails. A study carried out on behalf of IBM showed that people using the search functionality find an email much quicker than someone who uses a folder structure.

The Hybrid approach

Although I completely favour the ONE-folder approach, for specific cases I do see the advantage of having dedicated folders. So, let me introduce you here to the Hybrid approach:

  1. Build a ONE-folder archive, as described above.
  2. Aim to archive at least 80% in this Archive folder.
  3. If you can now already think of a situation in the future where you need to reflect on a specific set of emails, create a subfolder for that goal in your archive. Only create a folder when you have a very specific goal in mind. Otherwise, you could find that you revert to the old-fashioned folder structure, and this is not what we want.
  4. Aim to archive a maximum of 20% in dedicated folders.

Example of a specific folder:
One of my clients is responsible for writing the yearly report of the association she works for. During the year, she receives project stories and updates, which could be used in the report. She now saves these very specific emails in a dedicated folder, so that when the time comes she can easily refer to them collectively.

Increase your productivity by organising your emails

Take some time to put an email archive in place, or upgrade your existing one. Consider adopting the ONE-folder approach, or go for the Hybrid approach. You will benefit from it immediately. Less frustration, no more time-wasting, and a laser-sharp focus on the emails that require action. That’s what you will get.

The next post in this series will introduce you to great routines that will drastically decrease your email handling time. In the meantime, for more tips on email excellence, contact me today. My goal is to help you achieve more, and be better than ever!

Helping you achieve more,
Rutger