The Only Five Email Folders Your Inbox Will Ever Need

Stop “organizing” your emails by subject and start thinking of them in terms of deadlines.

For years, our approach to the email was like slaying a hydra. For every email we deleted, two more landed our my inbox. So not only did we put up with this mess, we were actually complicit in letting it worsen. We saved everything. We thought most messages addressed directly to us needed our response. We were wrong.

 

The system we use now isn’t a product of our own invention. It is a variation of a strategy companies share with consultants to help them manage their own unruly inboxes. The technique comes with all the beauty and simplicity you’d expect from companies charging seven figures per engagement–and it relies on a folder system you can tally on one hand.

 

DITCH SUBJECTS FOR DEADLINES

 

The biggest mistake, in our experience, is creating folders based on topics. Emails, like meetings, rarely stay on track.

 

Where do you file an important update that covers two unrelated projects? What do you do with that same email if it requires a response?

The second mistake we’ve seen, and personally committed, is trying to use an inbox as a to-do list. There simply aren’t enough hours in the workday to respond to all the emails that pile up there. Over time, precisely because of the way we were “organizing” our inbox, emails that we should’ve responded to got pushed further and further down and were hard to find later. 

 

The system that we use today requires only five folders:

 

  • Inbox: the inbox is a holding pen. Emails shouldn’t stay here any longer than it takes for you to file them into another folder. The exception to this rule is when you respond immediately and are waiting for an immediate response.
  • Today: Everything that requires a response today.
  • This Week: Everything that requires a response before the end of the week.
  • This Month/Quarter: – Everything that needs a longer-term response. Depending on your role, you may need a monthly folder. Others can operate on a quarterly basis.
  • FYI: Most items we receive are informational. If we think we may need to reference an email again, we’ll save it to this folder.

 

SHOW NO MERCY

 

An email will quickly become your master if you don’t take charge.

So once you embrace this system, you need to adhere to it mercilessly–there are no half measures. We tend to get laxer about newly adopted habits as their newness rubs off. But we’ve actually gotten better over time at sticking to our five-folder rule. We are ruthless about deleting emails that don’t require our attention. Here are five tips that make the system more effective.

 

First, we keep an actual to-do list.

Occasionally we’ll add items to that list based on the content of an email that didn’t require a response. For example, if an email thread results in deciding that we need to schedule a meeting, we’ll make a note to prep ourselves with some information from those emails–but we’ll delete them once I’ve finished that prep session.

 

Second, don’t exaggerate your own importance.

Too many people want to have a say in too many things. We all have leadership aspirations–and that’s generally a good thing. One way to grow your influence is indeed by taking on more responsibility. But don’t confuse having an opinion with leadership, or mounting email volume with weightier job duties. If you don’t need to respond, put it in the “FYI” folder or delete it–it’s one or the other. And if you stay on “cc,” you’ll get the latest thread when everyone responds, so there’s no need to worry.

 

Third, don’t exaggerate the importance of others.

A lot of people want responses today. But we’ve learned that we don’t always need or deserve a response today. This is especially true if you have obligations that directly impact customers or your company’s financial health. Don’t put emails in the “Today” folder that don’t belong there; if it’s in the “Today” folder you have to respond to it that day, no exceptions. Our rule is simple: we try and limit “Today” emails to messages involving customers and urgent projects.

 

Fourth, you can work out of multiple folders simultaneously.

Try to keep the “Today” folder small, for obvious reasons. If it’s empty and you’ve got time to address longer-term emails, dive into the “This Week” folder. If you don’t have all the information you need, you may begin your response but save it as a draft, and hold off sending it until you’re all squared away.

 

Finally, if your work is project-based, you can create this five-folder system for each project. You may have two or three projects running at a time, and technically wind up with 10 to 15 total folders as a result–but the system still holds. After the project is complete, archive the entire structure.

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