My Process for email

Here’s how I organize email. I recommend it as a strategy to consider, but I acknowledge that it’s a lot of work to maintain. 

  • The benefit of my method is an Inbox you don’t fear and a well-organized archive of emails for reference or to turn over to someone else.
  • The problem is that it requires a small amount of effort applied constantly, with periodic chunks of medium effort to catch up when you fall behind.

This discussion was pulled out of an already way-too-long blog post, which you can find here: xxxxxxxxxx. An important theme of that post is “who cares about email organization anymore?” 

As I discuss in that blog, modern email search tools make me question spending the time to organize email at all. I developed this approach when email searches were painfully slow and nearly useless. That’s no longer the case. As I describe my method below, I’ll note ways that I’ve changed due to better search capabilities.

Principles for email Organization

The absolute goal here is an empty Inbox, in accordance with the Inbox Zero theory ( because that’s the most efficient way. But remember this is a goal and is only true for fleeting moments at best!!  However, you should try because an inbox with hundreds of emails is a demoralizing thing. You’re also more likely to overlook items and fall behind with a bulging inbox. 

More principles to follow:

  • Email should be something you work on periodically, in chunks of time, and then you should SHUT OFF notifications otherwise. Treat it like getting paper mail from the mailbox: you get the mail, go through it, and get on with your day. You might check email multiple times a day, but you do not sit by your mailbox waiting for a delivery.
  • Treat email according to the “touch-it-once” rule of paper ( When you look at the email, decide on the initial viewing what to do with it – and either resolve it or file it (and add it to your to-do list). This is critical: do NOT leave it in the inbox to be handled later.  
  • The two-minute principle. When you’re touching the email, if you can resolve it in two minutes or less, just do it.

Filing emails for Later Work or Reference

Depending on your role, you may not need as much organization as I use. My method was refined while I was a City IT Director with lots of projects to monitor, information to gather for later reference, and financial records and contracts that are still important years later. 

My approach uses folders for easy referencing of topics. This comes from a time before email searching worked very well. As searching improved, the thing that’s changed for me is fewer folders. (Instead of folders for every topic, now I just use consolidated folders and assume I’ll search with key words.)
However, don’t overlook the value of folders to track your current tasks, and manage work that you’re overseeing! Read on to find out how the folders can help…

My folder method:

I split my organized email folders into two major areas: Current Work and an Archive of past items.

  • I use folders in Current Work to monitor things going on now. Mine has three main subfolders: My Tasks, Waiting on Others, and Current Projects. All three subfolders act as a quick guide to open items.
    • My Tasks are what I am working on. To a great extent it IS my to-do list (because my job lives by email). 
    • Waiting on Others is a holding place for things I’m monitoring. There are subfolders for the employees I manage (great for status meetings) and for other people who I’m waiting on even though I don’t manage them. I revisit these periodically and send nudges.
    • Current Projects has a folder for ongoing initiatives, then sub-folders for assorted topics. Looking at the folders tells you the open items on each project.
  • As a folder is resolved from Current Work, I move the folder to the Archive section - or delete it, depending on the situation.
    • It’s useful to maintain the same folder structures in the Archive, but I’ve gotten less picky about folders in the Archive, because you’ll usually be searching the archive.

Folder Names

Extremely specific guidance here. Name folders like this: YYYY_MM – Content Name. Four-digit years and two-digit months (01, 02, etc.) are key to automatic sorting. Useful content names save you hours of time looking for things.

So, if you looked at my folders you might see this structure:

  • Current Work
    • TimeSheet System
      • 2024_02 – Pre-Project Checklist we filled out
      • 2024_03 – How to Convert Current Schedules?

The Flag Hack and Search Folders

Over time, I’ve added a key productivity hack: flagging a message to organize into folders later. The Flag is the secret sauce of this trick, because it immediately allows me to hide emails from my main view for organization later. Note: this works well in Outlook, but I haven’t found similar Search Folder functionality in Gmail clients (even third-party apps). You can snooze or archive emails, but that’s not quite the same. You’d be better off moving them into a different folder for organization later. The flag hack was key for me as a City IT Director because I received hundreds of emails a day.

Here's what I did in Outlook:

  • I created a Search Folder called Active Items that includes both my Inbox and Sent folders, but only displays Unflagged items. 
  • There is another Search Folder that shows Flagged items from Inbox and Sent, labeled Need to File 
  • Note that I include both Inbox and Sent to better track items where I’m waiting on someone else. (News flash: not everyone responds to emails promptly!)
  • When I’m working on new email, I work in Active Items. I try to keep THIS view down to a minimum – and ideally to zero. Yes, even sent items! Sent items accumulate also, and there are some you want to save and others you don’t need. Organize them at the same time as your inbox.
And yes, my flag hack does kind of break the “touch it once” rule, but it’s more efficient to separate the organization of mails as its own task to do in chunks of time. When I do go through the Need to File folder, I wind up deleting lots of it – but I may not feel comfortable with deletion at the point when it first arrived.

My email Working Process

1)    I schedule time to work on email. I like hour-long blocks of time and I schedule these as a recurring daily meeting for myself. (For example, I have one set for 30 minutes after I normally arrive at work – giving me time to get in, make coffee, and get settled.) You might start with at least two of these per day.

2)    In between email times, turn off email notifications. (If something is really important and you don’t respond, they’ll call you – right?)

3)    During my email time, I start in the Active Items view (of Unflagged items from Inbox and Sent) and use the Conversation view to view messages with the most recent first. That way if there’s a thread, I’m only dealing with the latest message and I can delete all of the earlier ones. (Unless someone has branched the thread – another pet peeve of mine - in which case I re-title the subject of an email response to create a new conversation.)

4)    When I’m going through the search folder, what happens next depends on the situation, but the key is that NO MATTER WHAT I want that email to disappear from my Active view.  See below for notes about the verbs File, Delete, and Flag.

  • If it’s junk from a vendor, I mark it as junk to receive my junk reply when I send those out weekly. (That feeds into my vendor response process… That email, and any others from the same sender, will receive an automated response and be deleted, unread.
  • If I can read, act, and organize it in less than 2 minutes, then I do that.
  • If it’s going to be a longer task (I need to research, review something, etc.) then I file it in a Current Work folder and add it to my to-do list. Often, I’ll create a meeting on my calendar and schedule time to work on the item, attaching the email to the calendar meeting.
5)    Once I’ve completed the fast process of addressing new emails, I can begin the slow process of responding to the ones I deferred that require more action. (And crossing them off the to-do list.)

6)    Inevitably, new emails will come in while you’re working on email. If needed, ignore new emails until the next working session.

7)    If I start a new email thread, it’s going to appear in the Active Items view by default.

  • If I need to file it later, I’ll flag it.
  • Or I’ll move it to a Waiting on Others folder.
  • If it’s short-term and urgent, I’ll sometimes leave it in this view to remind myself to follow up. (It’s “Inbox Zero” not “Sent Items Zero”!) A major reason to keep Sent items in my Active view is to nudge people for a response.

8)    As time permits, I go to the Need to File Search Folder that has my flagged items and organize them into folders. (I don’t worry about unflagging items when I move them – they no longer show up in my Search folder once they’re moved.)  I like to do this in sustained stretches for a few reasons:

  • Sorting by conversation, you can often delete all of the prior messages in a thread and only file the last.
  • Even if you’re moving various messages to different folders, it’s more efficient to do this in batches. Here’s a change I’ve made recently: as I’ve reduced the number of folders due to improved search capabilities, I’ll search within Need to File for a cluster of emails by topic and move them all at once into a group folder. For example, I used to make folders for individual tasks where someone I managed was doing the work, and I was copied on the thread. Now I just throw them all into one folder by year.
  • I often wind-up grooming Current Work folders at the same time. I’ll find other closed items and move all of them to the Archive.

Here are my definitions of these terms: Flag, File, and Delete.

  • Flag – Adding a simple flag to an email (I don’t do different colors or priorities), which is my way of saying “this email needs to be filed later”. This is used to filter these messages out. See the discussion above about my flag hack.
  • File – I move emails into the long-term folder storage location. My folders are organized according to the principles I’ve identified above.
  • Delete – Our default rules work for me: deleted items sit in the Recycle Bin, where they are purged on a 30-day rolling basis. That generally gives enough time for an “oh shit!” moment.