Got an email filing system? Here’s what you should do instead.

The average worker supposedly gets 121 emails per day, but how much time do you spend looking for them?

you’re reasonably busy in any office environment these days, you can expect to be receiving 50–150 emails a day and sending about 40 a day in return. As these emails form much of the decision making, audit trail and information sharing content in a modern workplace, you are likely to be storing a percentage of this total for future reference.

But what’s the best way to store and file these mails for future retrieval? I don’t care what mails you think you should store for future reference, but I will share some tips that I use to store and retrieve essential emails.

In order to manage your email more effectively, you should consider using the Inbox purely as a landing point for email. Emails arrive in no other order than that with which they are sent. As such, there is no intrinsic value in working through emails in order, just use your inbox as an “in box”. This is the place where work arrives, gets triaged into things you need to do, rubbish you can discard or mails you’d like to hang onto.

When you see something that you need to do, don’t leave it in your inbox. Having a task sitting there simply makes you mentally revisit it every time you see it, and that’s just a waste of time. You should either respond immediately if it’s a trivial matter or put a task onto your to do list where it can be balanced against all your other work. Once it’s on your to do list, you don’t need to see that email until you respond to you need to file it away; simply removing the email from your inbox will help you to be more organised and less obsessed by the numbers of mails you’ve got to deal with.

Now, lets think about filing emails away. You should bear in mind that you are filing emails with the intention that you can easily retrieve them when you need to. Often it is enough to simply file emails according a “big bucket” policy, for example, it may be enough to have a single folder for each major project you work on or one for each external client you have dealings with. I’ve seen people with complex filing systems searching, seemingly forever to find emails, so try to avoid this trap.

Once you’ve got things into a “big bucket” there’s no reason why you can’t rely on the email search facilities built in search capability. All you need are some keywords and a decent knowledge of the advanced search functions to narrow down your search. In my experience, having an over-complicated filing system will cost you more time than having to search for mails in a single big folder. With a more complicated folder structure, you essentially have to perform two searches, one to find the right folder and one to find the right email, whereas with one folder, you know that the email must be somewhere in there.

Instead of always using the search functionality when looking for a mail, I find that using the recipient or sender’s name is often the best strategy for locating a mail. After all, when you think about wanting to retrieve a mail, you are more than likely to know either you sent it or who it was sent to. Simply ordering the mail folder by the sender or recipient’s name can give you a shortlist of candidate emails to narrow the search.

Often you will want to find an email that you have written in order to see what you said on a particular subject. A useful tip is to blind copy yourself on any mails that you are likely to want a record of in the future, this saves you going into your “sent items” folder to copy the items you wish to preserve. I know that I can delete everything in my Sent Items folder, because I will have sent any replies I want to keep to myself as an Inbox item.

Depending on the email system you’re using, your inbox may be restricted to a certain size, if so, you should file your mails in personal folders as these don’t normally use a part of your mailbox size allocation. Regardless what your email administrators in work say, there is really little reason to skimp and save on storing mail (you’re not trying to be Marie Kondo here). At the end of the day, if you think you need it, you are the best person to justify it and no one should tell you otherwise! I only delete email folders when the project they relate to is well and truly dead and buried, and only after I’ve extracted any mails that may still be useful.

So to summarise
1) Store mails in personal folders, not your inbox
2) Use a big bucket strategy
3) Use the search functions or re-order buttons to find mails
4) Don’t worry about saving too much
5) Copy yourself on mails you send that you want to keep
6) Delete mails for long dead projects only

I hope this gives you some ideas for how you can best manage your email filing. It’s not the most thrilling of subjects, but is simply one of those mundane “must do” chores that modern life includes.

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Chris Stevenson

I’m interested in lots of things and write about them. History, nature, environment, business topics, experimental stories and anything else I fancy.