Everybody in business needs to be organised, and because email seems to be the communication tool of choice these days it’s important to be able to easily find those messages you need at a moments notice. And that means folders for each customer or project, right?

Why not folders?

Take it from us, this isn’t the way forward. Folders work well if the item you’re filing is specific to that folder, but what happens when it’s relevant to more than one? Suppose you’re doing a job for a company via a consultant? What do you file the email under? The consultant or the client? And will you remember to consistently file subsequent emails in that folder or will some end up in a different one?

You may have different folders for different clients, but also different folders for different activities. For example, you might have a ‘Meetings’ and ‘To Invoice’ folder, but again if you drag an email into one of these then it can’t also appear in a folder based on customer, or another task.

Most people these days tend to use IMAP when managing mail accounts, which means that all of their email synchronises on the mail server and then across all devices. It’s a great way to work, but if you permanently store all of your email in different folders then it won’t be long before your account quota is reached, and you’ll have to either buy more space or think of a better way to get organised. You should never use your email software as a filing system or as a method of managing content for projects – there are better applications out there much more suited to this role (we like the excellent Evernote).

The biggest single mistake people make though is to use their email inboxes as a ‘to do’ list. You find that emails you should have responded to earlier just get pushed further and further down the list, until eventually they get buried at the bottom and never actioned. We’d always recommend using a dedicated task manager for this, such as Azendoo or ToDoist. The trick of course is keeping on top of them!

So what’s the best way to organise emails then? We’ve seen many alternative systems, but they’re all based on the same underlying principle, and that’s getting the number of emails in your actual inbox down to as few as possible, in fact ideally zero, and if you don’t need an email, ditch it!

A better system – tag your emails

This is how we do it, and we can manage everything with just two folders. ‘Inbox’ and ‘Archive’. The reason we can do this is that we tag our emails rather than file them, and with tagging we’re able to allocate an email to more than one ‘folder’. We’re also able to track down emails very quickly using a combination of the email software’s native search facility and the tagging system. No more scrolling through long lists of emails in folders – the email you are looking for is easily found within seconds.

We’re on a Mac, so we use Apple Mail, but we’ve added the excellent MailTags plugin to enhance it’s capabilities. There are probably other systems out there that do the same job, so it’s worth carrying out a quick web search to see what’s available for the software you use.

We keep it all really simple. First up, when an email arrives in the inbox we make a decision about what to do with it. If we deal with it straight away and we don’t need to keep it then we simply delete it. If it needs action then we tag it with the relevant keyword then create a new task in our task manager application. We then move it out of the inbox and into our second folder, the ‘Archive‘. You can label this anything you like, but this is what works for us – the important thing is to deal with it in whichever way you decide and then get it out of the inbox.

Whatever we decide to do, and however we decide to tag the email, it doesn’t stay in the inbox after we’ve read it. The inbox is purely a holding area for where emails arrive before they are tagged, after which they are moved to the archive immediately. The Mailtags plugin now gives us virtual folders based on tags, but also should we wish we can create ‘Projects‘ based on conditions we define. And each email can be allocated more than one tag and more than one project – so you can instantly see how it’s more beneficial than static folders. Additionally we can mark emails with a colour, add them to a calendar, assign them to a task, add a note and set an importance. There’s simply no need for folders if you can do all of this.

The Archive

So because all email now sits in a single archive folder it’s so easy to find what you need, because you don’t use folders any more to manage your emails, you use tags. You now filter by tag, keyword, project, basically whatever you decide, and these tags don’t care about folders, they’re just interested in dynamically categorising individual emails by whichever criteria you set. You don’t actually navigate to your folder to view emails, you just follow links from the tags you’ve created, which gives you a list of all emails with that tag, project, colour etc. Alternatively, the search system built into the Mail application integrates with your tags and projects, so you can find what you need very quickly.

The Local Archive

There is one more folder worth a mention, and that’s the local archive – in our case a folder that appears in the ‘On my Mac’ section of Apple Mail. This is different to the server archive that we send all tagged emails to, as the server archive remains on the server and so is accessible to other devices connected via IMAP. The local archive is a mail folder that exists purely on your computer, not the server. As such, any emails in here won’t be available on other devices.

By the time email is moved to the local archive folder it’s been dealt with. It exists here purely so should we ever need to go back to an old email we can do so, but without using valuable email server space. We tend to have local archive folders for each year, and periodically we’ll take all emails out of the mail account archive folder and put it in here.

To Summarise

There are many ways to manage email, and this is just a system that works for us. We know of plenty of people who swear by the five folder method, but we know of others who customise their systems based on their own requirements and how there businesses work. In our opinion though the most effective and efficient systems all meet the following criteria:

  • Don’t hold emails in folders, categorise them via tags and projects instead.
  • Never use your inbox as a task list. If an email arrives that you need to action, add it to your task manager application then archive it.
  • If you don’t need an email, delete it! You don’t record and store every phone call you make, you shouldn’t with email either.
  • Never put anything back in your inbox.