How to Organize Your Email Folders

As a result of COVID-19 and the lasting quarantine we have all been under, you have found yourself with some of that free time you thought you would never have. By now, you have probably organized your closet, cleaned out the garage, and are considering tackling that pantry. Perhaps you thought about organizing your technology – the files, photos, and emails that have been accumulating on your computer for years, maybe even decades. Don’t worry, organizing your email inbox can be a lot simpler and easier than you might think. 

When I began working at the defense department, I found myself working with intelligence analysts and others in intelligence capacities. As an incredibly organized and well-run machine, the defense department recognized that their employees were constantly exchanging emails in a way that caused a lot of disorganization.  

At the time, I was also running a company and receiving approximately 300 emails a day. To say I was overwhelmed by emails would be an understatement. In order to help their employees organize their email and be more productive, the defense department created the “3 folder rule.”

organize email folders

Here’s the first thing you need to understand about the 3 folder rule: the purpose of these folders is not to help you find a specific email. That’s what the search bar is for. So, you don’t need to organize your email folders by person, category, or subject. Instead, your folders should help you organize the actions you need to take with each of your emails. This way, you can use your folders to organize your tasks and increase your productivity, rather than interrupting your workflow whenever an email appears in your inbox. Below, I have outlined and explained each of the three folders you should be using to organize your inbox:

File and Forget

The “File and Forget” folder should never need to be opened. I would advise against even looking into it. Its only purpose is to archive your emails in the case that they will appear if you end up searching for something in one of them. Put emails that you think are unimportant or would otherwise delete in this folder, and you can forget about them.

Read and Action

The “Read and Action” serves two purposes. First, it provides a location outside your inbox where you can store emails that require a deeper level of interaction. Second, it can be used as a to-do list, or a list of tasks that you can check off when you have time set aside specifically for responding to emails. Once the email no longer requires action, move it to one of the other two folders.

Reference, No Action

The “Reference, No Action” folder is only for emails you need to “learn” from (e.g., recipes, articles, funny memes you want to share, etc.) The email has either already been responded to or is just for you to reference. If it becomes no longer needed for reference, move it to the “File and Forget” folder.

Three simple folders, an equally simple process model, and you’re well on your way to proper email management. Don’t let email distract you from the important matters of the day. Your time is valuable, and your day should not be spent in an inbox. 

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Other Email Organization Tips

Numerous researchers and organizational specialists say that we spend far too much time reading and re-reading the same emails over and over. Of course, reading an email several times is highly inefficient. So why do we do it?

We leave emails in our inbox because we’re not ready to respond or feel like they need to remain in the inbox for reference or further action. Doing this causes our inboxes to fill up with emails, increases our anxieties and continues us on a procrastination trajectory. The solution to this email problem is to read the email once and either immediately respond or file it. DO NOT LEAVE IT IN YOUR INBOX.

For those who have read this far and still think that this folder system won’t provide the level of searchability or be as easy as their current system, I offer you one final tip. If an email you send or receive is particularly important to you, rather than leave it in your inbox, simply forward the email to another system for further indexing and storage. In my case, when I have an important email and want to ensure I can find it again if needed, I forward the email to my Evernote.

Evernote takes that email and makes the entire document searchable, attachments and all! It can even take hand-written notes, perform OCR on them, and make them searchable too. You can also add tags to the email to further make finding it easier if the need arose to search for it in the future.

To begin using this system does take a bit of faith and courage. You have to be ready to give up on your current filing structure that has most likely evolved over many years. You’re probably so accustomed to using your existing system that it’s second nature. However, like every good hoarder, even though you may know where something is, doesn’t mean its location is serving your needs or purpose. So, try it out, and I promise it will organize your email inbox, decrease distractions, and eliminate your email procrastination habits.