Why Three Folders For Your E-mail Is Hardly Good Enough

Why Three Folders For Your E-mail Is Hardly Good Enough

Jason Yang
Nov 8, 2011

Our colleagues recently floated the idea of only needing three folders to organize email. As a counterpoint (we sure do love to counterpoint), we politely disagree. Here's why it makes sense to fully and thoroughly organize your email, regardless of all the "evidence" to the contrary.

An IBM Research study identified two types of e-mail re-finding behaviors - preparatory and opportunistic. The former is prepared advanced organizing in anticipation of future searches versus the latter which is real-time during retrieval such as "scrolling, sorting or searching." The study found that finding a specific e-mail by search was much faster than by folder. The report indicated that "people defer responding to 37% of messages that need a reply... because people have insufficient time to respond at once, or they need to gather input from colleagues."

But organization plans for e-mail aren't always only about how to find a single message as fast as possible. While search is undeniably a fast way to find a specific message, e-mail is about more than a single message. It is a medium for communicating that allows a broad spectrum of multiple concurrent conversations between several people. And in providing this massive system it doesn't make sense to just lump everything together in a handful of folders.

Our own personal approach might be overkill but with a 20GB Microsoft Outlook PST file spanning a dozen years of communication from work, family, sports, websites, purchases - you name it - dumping everything together doesn't make sense. Our method essentially creates two primary folders.

Our inbox serves as a placeholder for messages that need attention. Anything waiting for a response hangs out here and we knock them out when we can. It's the first thing we see when we go to Outlook and we flag anything that's urgent or has a higher priority. An example might be an email requiring a response or waiting for me to complete a task. So it serves as a To Do list of sorts, with particularly important tasks flagged as important.

A secondary holding place is for messages that don't have a specific sense of urgency but still should be addressed at some time in the near future. Examples might be a deal someone or some website sent me or a members program statement i want to review later but doesn't require a response.

Then we have another hundred folders or so. What, you say? We have all of our e-mail sorted into primary categories such as work (Digital Studios, Apartment Therapy Unplggd), one for family, one for friends, and one for other (such as house, car, insurance, etc.). For each primary folder we make an active choice - is this going to be an inactive (archive) or active folder?

If it's an archive folder, we simply dump all e-mails in the folder and use the standard search method to find anything. The reason we do this fits the study results - it's faster to find what we're looking for. We're okay with this for archive style folders because we will rarely reference these messages in the future. E-mails from friends and family that are read and filed away don't really need to be kept much more organized than that.

Work on the other hand is a totally different animal. Every single client gets their own folder. For larger clients, each project gets its own folder. Active client and project folders are kept in the main work folder while inactive projects are filed further down into a "Less Frequent" folder. We use "." in the organization folder names to keep them at the top of the list.

This may seem bat-guano insane but it all serves a grand purpose. For work related e-mails, more often than not there is no such thing as an individual e-mail. Message threads will get replied to dozens of times over, with different subject lines, from different people, and spanning months and months. If we were to simply try to find an individual e-mail through this mass/mess of communication, it would take forever to actually string anything together. It's about the e-mails together as a whole and how they relate. So while it may take a lot longer to actually create the organizational structure and follow it, the point isn't to save time in finding e-mails but rather to create a better understanding of the grouping and content of several e-mails all together. Ultimately instead of simply finding the e-mail communication we care about the meaning of the e-mail communication, and one at a time out of context isn't nearly as helpful.

More about E-mail at Unplggd:

(Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding via Box Free IT)

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