At my job, we use Webex and Jabber and Microsoft Office 365 for messaging and collaboration, but email is still king. Over the years I have organized my emails by year, project, and client using the various tools that Microsoft Outlook provides: folders (sometimes nested), categories (which are tags with names and color coding), and flags. Recently, I have simplified my filing system to use no categories, no flags, and only four essential folders:

  1. Inbox
  2. Archive
  3. @Action
  4. @Now

Inbox is self-explanatory; it’s where all my emails enter the system. From there, I pick out messages that are really to-do items and move them to the @Action folder. I set up a Quick Step to perform this with a single click or keyboard shortcut. I move every other email1 to the Archive folder. Thankfully, Outlook 365 has a toolbar button that makes this a one-click operation.2

I spend most of my email time looking through the @Action folder, which normally has between 5 and 25 emails in it, for emails related to my next task. From there, I move all emails associated with that task to the @Now folder. I keep those messages in the @Now folder as I perform the task, refer to them as reference material as I perform the task, and reply to at least one of them to complete my task. After I complete the task, I move all the emails in the @Now folder to the Archive folder. If I am interrupted in the middle of a task for more than a few minutes, I will move all the messages in the @Now folder back to the @Action folder.

I try not to let any of the folders, except for Archive, end up with a glut of emails in them for too long. Outlook’s email search capabilities are capable enough to allow me to find anything I need in my Archive folder quickly enough for me not to need to organize archived messages in any way.

Overall, this system has been working well for me and I plan to continue to use it in the future.

  1. Technically, this means every email that does not represent an action for me to perform in response to it. ↩︎

  2. In prior versions of Outlook, such as Outlook 2016, I set up a Quick Step to do this. ↩︎