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As most people, I have an "Inbox". I believe in Inbox Zero and want to avoid having messages linger only to be read over and over again.

What subfolders do I need in order to work efficiently?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

What folders you need depends on your workflow.

I'd say the bare miminum would be:

  • Inbox
  • Archive
  • Deleted

I used to have innumerable folders. But ever since Gmail has exceptional search functionality and Microsoft Outlook 2010's search sucks less than it used to, I have fewer and fewer folders.

This is what I require for my workflow.

  • Inbox: Everything that comes in.

  • Archive: Everything that's been acted upon. Same as you, I don't want stuff lying around in my inbox, Inbox Zero.

  • Waiting: Received or sent emails that are waiting for some follow-up from some colleague. I go through the folder once a week. There are only low priority items in it. If it is high priority or I need to do something, there will be a reminder in my calender.

  • Project 1: I like to keep all the messages that belong to the same project in one folder. Makes it easier to browse through them if required.

  • Project 2: Same as above.

  • Deleted: Deleted emails. Everything that didn't make it into any of the above folders and everything that I will for sure never ever need anymore, like, emails from mailing lists or status emails from certain IT systems at the company.

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I like this, but how do you handle the "project" folders? If a message could be in "waiting" and in "project 1", what do you do? – Konerak Jan 21 '13 at 7:39
@Konerak: I put it in "Waiting" since that's the folder I review once a week. "Project 1" is just a special type of archive which I hardly ever look at. By the way, that's exactly the problem with folders: it's impossible to put one item into two folders (unless you make copies or references). That's why I prefer labels to folders: you can put both labels "Waiting" and "Project 1" on the same email. – Lernkurve Jan 22 '13 at 8:59
I'm following this methodology now, but I made two "waiting" folders. One is "todo", which contains stuff I need to do when I got time (action required by ME), the other is "follow up", where someone else needs to do something (action required by THEM). – Konerak Oct 6 '15 at 9:24

If you work by client or by project, then folders for each one will make it easier to find those emails later when there are questions. I also have a folder for any messages that tell me what a wonderful job I did. I use these to qualitify how often I have pleased the clients when I do my performance evaluation so I accumulate them through the year.

I also have one for Policies to so I can easily find any policies that were anonounced in an email. I may not care at the time that there is a new policy on maternity leave, but I might need to know this information later.

I get a lot of automated system messages, so I have a folder for failures (and a rule that sends them to this folder automatically). This makes it easier to filter out the most important messages in sea of hundreds of daily messages.

I also have a general folder for stuff I may have some reason to keep but don't think warrants a new folder.

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Hi HLGEM, if I received an email saying, "We've updated our policy, please see it at http://.......", I'd wish to store the actual policy in case it changed or disappeared in future, rather than this email. How would you handle this? – jontyc Jan 17 '13 at 1:01

My philosophy about inbox zero is that email is great for transferring information, but not storing it. Basically, there are three steps for every message you get.

1. Is is actionable?
If the message contains anything that is actionable, immediately record those actions in your trusted system, such as your GTD inbox. If you don't know what GTD is, go find out.

2. Will I ever need this again?
You might want to keep valuable messages (eg. product serial numbers, tax receipts) in a trusted filing system, if you're sure that they will be needed later on. A good filing system exists outside of your email client.

Similarly, you might want to save messages for future reading if they make you happy. I've heard of people keeping copies of positive feedback they get through email, as a source of encouragement.

3. Immediately delete the email message you just processed.

So really, you only need two email folders.

* Inbox
* Deleted

The key is that you should have trusted systems outside your email client. Without those, you will inevitably see your email messages pile up, because they don't have a proper place to go.

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Following GTD methodology, archives are important too. You can keep a zero inbox, but you should probably be redirecting certain messages to folders like serial numbers and receipts. Utilizing a filing system outside the email client can be inefficient. – Muz Jan 17 '13 at 3:37
That is unrealistic in many jobs. I can't tell you how often I have needed emails from the past and often I can't tell in advance which ones I will need. – HLGEM Jan 17 '13 at 14:42
I mean I'm not sure why a filing system is better than storing it inside an email folder. Zero inbox doesn't mean zero folders. Most email clients have absurdly high storage space, a very good search system, and are likely to last a very long time. If you're unsure whether you need it, it's best archived somewhere. – Muz Jan 18 '13 at 7:18

Just your inbox and one other folder for holding emails until they are to be acted upon.

I recommend you use email as a source of tasks or reference material, not as a destination for either.

Although it can be used as a destination, you will either have to:

a) start creating emails for other tasks or reference materials that have not come from email, or

b) have multiple task management and reference systems.

I use Gmail for all my email accounts. If a reply to an email is to be deferred, I will move it to a 'folder' in Gmail I've called "Pending" (or more correctly, relabel it) to get it out of my inbox.

In my task management system (Evernote), I create a task and pop in the link to the email. When the task is done, I delete the email and the task. This could be tricky for other email clients.

I could alternatively email straight to Evernote and delete it from mail straight away, but keeping the message in email makes it easier to reply to. I will send the email straight to Evernote is it's purely for reference and doesn't need replying.

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What folders you need depends a bit on your email client's capabilities, and how you want to work. Using Outlook 2010, this is what works for me:

Inbox: general purpose inbox, anything that comes in and isn't moved elsewhere by an automatic filter sits here until I handle it.

In-{list}: I have a bunch of subfolders under the inbox that are the destination folders for various mailing lists or other automatically sortable email. I have rules set up that recognize these emails as they come in, and move them to these folders without my doing anything else. Some of these folders automatically delete messages by age, so some mail comes in and goes out without my ever looking at it. That's perfectly OK for "SUCCESS" email from the build system, for example.

@Read: mail that's in my Inbox that will take longer to read than 2 minutes goes here, and a task on my task list to read the item. In Outlook 2010 you can set up "Quick Steps" and bind them to a keystroke, so I can do it very quickly.

@Reply: mail that I receive in the Inbox that I must reply to, but will take longer than 2 minutes. I have another Quick Step key binding set up for this action that also creates a "Reply to..." task for my task list.

Archive (by year): any mail that I have read and may want to refer to in the future goes here. I add categories (tags) as I move it, again with a Quick Step key binding, so it is easy to search in the archive to find what I'm looking for. I keep the annual archive in a separate PST file on a network drive that's backed up constantly, and start a new one each year. That keeps the size of the Outlook inbox and data file down to something that can be managed and searched easily, and keeps my IT people happy.

That's all. I typically spend 30-40 minutes a day processing email. There's additional time involved in actually reading and replying to the emails that need it, but my inbox is empty when I'm doing those actions.

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