Using a three-folder system to keep e-mail under control

Checking, reading, processing, replying to, and stressing out about e-mail can all be sources of clutter in our lives. And, according to a recent Fast Company article written by Gina Trapani titled “Work Smart: Conquering Your Email Inbox,” processing e-mail might be taking up half of our workweek:

A 2008 survey at Intel showed employees receive 350 emails per week on average; at Morgan Stanley, employees get 625 new messages per week. Executives’ incoming email volume was much higher. In some cases, workers spent 20 hours a week just dealing with email.

Trapani suggests in her article to create three folders to keep e-mail from cluttering up your time: To-do, Wait, and Reference. To use them:

If the message is a task you’ve got to complete–like a request from the boss–file it into your To-do folder, and add it to your to-do list. If the message is about something you’re waiting for–like a package shipment notification or a promise from a co-worker to get you something by next Tuesday–put it in your Wait folder, and maybe even on your calendar. Everything else–the CC’s, the FYI’s, the “just thought you should know”s–file these in Reference. That’s your library of email that you can search any time to look up information you might need later.

In my opinion, the most important parts of this system are “add it to your to-do list” and “put it … on your calendar.” Treat e-mail like regular mail or as if there is someone standing in your office making the request. This type of attention can go a long way in keeping e-mail under control. Be sure to check out the article for additional tips.

22 Comments for “Using a three-folder system to keep e-mail under control”

  1. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    In the association in which I volunteer, we’ve made it policy to put important info in the subject line.
    ACTION by «date»: indicates the recipient must take action by the date indicated in the subject line.
    FYI: indicates that the recipient may be interested in knowing but is not required to take action.

    If you’re in the CC field of an ACTION email then it’s an FYI for you but ACTION to anyone in the TO field.

    It has certainly improved our ability to prioritize.

  2. posted by Julia on

    A friend of mine who is a professor once said ‘Until ‘answers all email’ is part of my job description, it’s not going to happen.’ His point, and mine for this comment, is that so much email is bull*$$#. A large part of my decade long executive career involved reading wrong-headed emails, and then getting up, walking around to talk to people, and derailing the idea that it’s possible to work effectively simply through a series of cyber-notes. My strongest system for email was ignoring most of it, forcing people out of their lazy game of hot potato. I like the previous poster’s idea – that should become a radio button on all email programs!

  3. posted by Dave P on

    On January 1, 2009 I decided to stop filing email into folders. Everything just sits in my INBOX folder. Since I started doing this I have not had a problem finding an email that I need to look up (the search in Apple Mail serves my needs). I use Google Mail with IMAP.

    It’s a great system. I no longer have to take time to file emails and worry about cleaning out my Inbox! What could be more simple?

    Dave P.

  4. posted by penguinlady on

    I work at a job where 80% of all communication happens via email. When I see “350 emails per week”, I laugh, because I deal with that – or more – a day.

    Unfortunately, I have yet to find an email system that really works for me, because I have to file my email so very carefully and I never know what will be needed later for revenue/billing purposes. Filing projects I have no problem with, but the “reference” file would be huge, and for some reason, I can’t think of good, broad filing names that aren’t so broad that I can’t find anything.

  5. posted by Laura @ PARING DOWN on

    I love this post. It’s very topical for me. I don’t like having open and read emails that take up more than a single screen…this is a great solution!

  6. posted by Christina on

    Love tips like this. E-mail can be such a time-saver. Does this article only recommend these three folders? I have a wide variety of responsibilities at work, thus many folders and sub-folders. I guess my question is, once I have completed the task, or may not need the reference as much, do I move it to the appropriate sub-folder?

  7. posted by JefferyK on

    Your inbox can function as a To Do folder. The only other folders I use are Waiting For and Archive. Perusing the Waiting For folder helps me keep up with outstanding tasks. E-mails I want to keep that don’t require action go into the Archive folder. I run a search to find particular messages if necessary. I receive anywhere from 100 to 300 e-mail messages a week, and I leave an empty inbox each day. I’d be happier if the Outlook search worked as well as the Apple Mail search. And I hate that I can’t automatically bcc e-mails to myself in Outlook — that means having the manage the Sent folder.

  8. posted by Johan K on

    Nice article, has me considering adding a “wait” folder to my in-box.
    I’m with Jefferey, I move everything out of my inbox into folders as soon as I read them, unless I need to do something with them. In that sense, my inbox functions as my “to-do” folder, either read the e-mail, keep it there if I need to do something with it, or move it to a categorized subfolder (which can have subfolders of themselves based on specific subject or work). I also keep a specific folder in important category folders named “agreements” in which I move all e-mails with agreements in regard to work.

    Objective is to have the inbox as empty as possible, which I accomplish every other day or so.

    As for finding something later with this system… that’s why good e-mail programs have “All Mail” options…

    Anyway, works for me.

  9. posted by Allison on

    I know people have a LOT of responsibilities at their jobs, especially those which require a lot of emails – but I’m surprised no one suggested that people should “respond to an email immediately.” I would say about 90% of emails can easily be indexed because it should take no more than 1 minute to write back. An email saying, “Hey Bob – did you get the TPS report?” can easily and efficiently be responded. I would say, a lot of emails are those which require people to double check themselves.

    @Julia, Also my university actually obliges that all faculty and students are required to know any email that is sent to them within 24 hours. The email system is seen as official business, so if an email is sent then it the responsibility of the recipient to know of the email’s existence. It doesn’t mean that you HAVE to respond to it, but if a student sends you an email saying they are sick then you are not allowed to say you did not know that fact. It’s both a blessing and annoying.

  10. posted by K. H. on

    Or here’s another one: let the computer do the filing for you. I have folders for received mail by year, and one marked “Hold” so I have a place to put emails I’m not moving while I’m emptying my inbox into the year folder. Anything important/undone stays in the inbox or I put in a to do list. You can look up anything by keyword, sender, date, etc. — so why bother to spend time specially filing it? I do agree that having as much information in the topic line as possible is good, and that’s the same for other kinds of documents.

  11. posted by steph on

    Like JefferyK, at work I use my inbox as a to-do list. The folders I keep correspond to the projects I’m working on.

    If email comes in and it’s just info about the project, it goes into the project folder immediately. If I finish the task of a to-do email, I put it into the folder project.

    When the project ends, I sift through all the messages, pull out the worthless one-liners and archive the whole thing and take all the emails and project files off my computer entirely.

    I’m motivated to keep this up because the less messages in my inbox is representative of less to-do items on my list!

  12. posted by Three in One § Unqualified Offerings on

    […] Erin Doland discusses Gina Trapani’s three-folder-system for email, and concludes: […]

  13. posted by Karen on

    This is why I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Gmail! If you use the Google calendar and Google tasks, it is SUPER-SIMPLE to add emails to your calendar and your to-do list. You don’t need to have a reference folder because in gmail, everything is search-able (provided you archive rather than delete). Google/Gmail makes it easy to be organized (or at least to look that way =)

  14. posted by Terry Cole on

    I use google stars for these purposes. I waste no time sorting or processing, but I have stars for “to-do” (and I break it into a star color for personal, personal-finance, business, and volunteer), to-read (with best intentions) or to-reference (what really happens). I personally use remember the milk for my to-do list because of it’s sophisticated repetition system and ability to maintain different lists so I can be productive and efficient. And I use google calendar.

    Anyway… not moving or filing. Just stars. Then use the search capability (bookmarking quick searches) to find stuff quickly. The inbox is just a sequence of everything. Unread mail there means I haven’t yet checked it over for star power. Admittedly I have to look at it once a day to process but that’s no different than listening to voice mail or opening paper mail. But the stars and searches are everything. Review those lists on an appropriate basis (daily for to-dos, weekly for some (like church and volutneer), monthly for others (like finance), etc.

  15. posted by peachy on

    did this as soon as i read it, it’s great! now i won’t have to keep scrolling down through endless emails to find the one i need. so simple yet so useful. thanks so much 🙂

  16. posted by Jess on

    I have streamlined my personal email Inbox (which as a SAHM, IS my work email) by directing all of my FYI emails, newsletters and the like, directly to my Deleted Items folder.

    That way they do not scream for attention like new Inbox arrivals, I can scan them 10 or more at a time at my leisure to see if there’s anything I want to read/keep, and delete in bulk!

  17. posted by ray on

    Ever try Mailsteward? Interested in any comments as there do not seem to be any current reviews.

  18. posted by DR. WHAW? – March 9, 2010 « One True Sentence on

    […] Using a three-folder system to keep e-mail under control by Erin Doland – I’m meticulous about my e-mail filing. If the preview pane in Outlook can’t show all my messages at once, I’m overwhelmed. Luckily, I control it (for the most part), and often only have one or two messages in limbo; however, e-mail overload and disorganization seem to plague many people, so be sure to check out the comments as well. This is a simple system I think might help some of you get started… if you want. […]

  19. posted by Patti on

    Thanks for the tip. I keep pretty much nothing in home email (including Address Book contact who never reply or who never send me anything), but I do have too many Outlook folders at work. Limiting to three folders is a great idea, and one I CAN and WILL do TODAY!

    I might even be able to streamline down to only TWO folders — To Do, and Waiting. “Reference” items that are “done” or need no other action could actually just be saved to the hard drive using the File – Save As menu, then deleted from Outlook.

    Speaking of clearing out too many Outlook folders, would it disrupt the space-time continuum to delete the automatic folders that Mr. Gates has blessed us with? Like quarantine, For Follow Up, Large Mail, Unread Mail (duplicate to Inbox), Sent Mail (duplicate to Outbox), etc.?

  20. posted by Katie Morton on

    I was at a point where I was spending practically all day, every day on email until I started using a system like this. Now I spend maybe an hour tops on email each day. My work life is way more sane for it. 🙂

  21. posted by Brad Marley » Blog Archive » Weekly Grab Bag – March 13, 2010 on

    […] Using a three-folder system to keep e-mail under control (Unclutterer) – Uh oh. PRODUCTIVITY ALERT! Ya'll know by now that I'm a sucker […]

  22. posted by My Blog » Blog Archive » Weekly Grab Bag – March 13, 2010 on

    […] Using a three-folder system to keep e-mail under control (Unclutterer) – Uh oh. PRODUCTIVITY ALERT! Ya'll know by now that I'm a sucker […]

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