How to Keep Your Email Inbox Under Control: Filing System

As a general rule, you want to delete emails when they’ve served their purpose. However, you may need to keep a few of them for future reference (e.g. emails where you agreed on an issue with a client).

Filing your emails is a vital part of your email management system.

The topic of “filing systems” could cover an entire book. I’ll be succinct here and focus on giving you general guidelines to help you find a filing system that works for you.

General Principle

When we talk about filing systems, the general guiding principle is: Your filing system should allow you to retrieve emails easily when you need to refer to them.

This principle establishes the basic rule you should follow when choosing your filing system: The best system is the one that works for you. You can have the fanciest filing system, but if you’re not using it effectively, it’s worthless.

In establishing your filing system, you should never lose sight of your goal: to retrieve your emails quickly. There’s not one, perfect way to file your emails, just as there is no unique way to organize a closet. You may need to go through many iterations of trial and error before you find a system that meets your needs.

For instance, the filing system I use for my personal (home) email is different than the one I use for my professional (work) email. Why? The types of emails I receive at home are different from those I receive at work. Thus, keeping in mind the goal of easy retrieval, I adapt my filing system to the various contexts.

The two main ways to classify your emails for filing purposes are:

  • by people
  • by topic

People

If you file your emails by people, it means you’re storing the email under the sender’s name or under a group the sender belongs to (e.g. you file John’s email under your Marketing Team folder because John is a member of that team, and you file all the emails from that team at the same place).

Topics

If you file your emails by topic, it means storing the email under the folder associated with that topic. For example, if John’s email is about the marketing campaign for the new email management workshop, you would save the email under your “Email Management Workshop” folder, along with all the other emails you’ve received on that topic.

People or Topics

Both personally and professionally, I use people and topics as part of my filing system. However, the emphasis is different in both cases. Personally, my filing system is people-based. Professionally, it’s topic-based.

At home, I mainly receive information emails from experts I follow. For these, it makes sense that I store them under the name of the expert in question. It wouldn’t make sense—to me—to save these under a “topic folder”.

However, at work, I manage many projects that involve many people, who may be involved in more than one of my projects. Thus, it’s very common for me to have a string of emails on a given topic with many people chiming in. It wouldn’t be effective to store each person’s response under the folder bearing their name. It’s more effective—for me—to only keep the last email of a trail and save it under the project’s folder.

Categories

Most people I know store their emails in folders. Hence, that’s the term (i.e. folder) I used in this post.
I need to mention that, at work, I don’t use folders to classify my emails; I use an Outlook feature called “Categories”, which allows users to assign a category to an email. Emails of the same category are regrouped and displayed together.

To be clear, I have one big folder (“Filing Cabinet”) with all my archives emails organized by category. If I’m looking for an email about the “blue” project, then I go to the “blue” category to look for it.

For me, the advantage of using categories (over creating multiple folders) is to access various folders when I’m looking for an email. All my emails are in one place, and I can filter them according to their category when needed.

Your email client may offer the option to use categories and perhaps other interesting options. As stated, find a system that works for you; that’s what matters.

About The Author

Vladimir Elie

I help people learn and apply success principles and strategies so that they can get the results they want in life.