This 5-Folder System Will Organise Your Inbox Once And For All

From the early days of feeling overwhelmed by email; to eagerly investing time to wrestle back control of our inbox — we're almost back where we began, with the increasing volume of daily email leaving us resigned to never truly cracking the email organising code. Until now.

If your sorting system consists solely of 'mark unread' for later, you might benefit from giving the 5-folder method a try.


Writing for Fast Company, Zach Hanlon outlines the 5-folder system that could reinvigorate the way you view your inbox:

Inbox: the inbox is a holding pen. Emails shouldn’t stay here any longer than it takes for you to file them into another folder. The exception to this rule is when you respond immediately and are waiting for an immediate response.

Today: Everything that requires a response today.

This Week: Everything that requires a response before the end of the week.

This Month/Quarter: Everything that needs a longer-term response. Depending on your role, you many need a monthly folder. Others can operate on a quarterly basis.

FYI: Most items I receive are informational. If I think I may need to reference an email again, I'll save it to this folder.

The rookie error? Using your inbox as a to-do list

The second mistake I’ve seen, and personally committed, is trying to use an inbox as a to-do list. There simply aren't enough hours in the workday to respond to the emails that pile up there. Over time, precisely because of the way I was "organising" my inbox, emails that I should've responded to got pushed further and further down, and were eventually forgotten.

Keep an actual to-do list

Occasionally I’ll add items to that list based on the content of an email that didn’t require a response. For example, if an email thread results in deciding that we need to schedule a meeting, I'll make a note to prep my boss with some information from those emails—but I'll delete them once I've finished that prep session.

Be realistic

Don’t exaggerate your own importance. Too many people want to have a say in too many things. We all have leadership aspirations—and that's generally a good thing. One way to grow your influence is indeed by taking on more responsibility. But don’t confuse having an opinion with leadership, or mounting email volume with weightier job duties. If you don’t need to respond, put it in the "FYI" folder or delete it—it's one or the other. And if you stay on "cc," you’ll get the latest thread when everyone responds, so there's no need to worry.

Don’t exaggerate the importance of others

A lot of people want responses today. I’m one of them. But I've learned that I don’t always need or deserve a response today. This is especially true if you have obligations that directly impact customers or your company's financial health. Don’t put emails in the "Today" folder that don’t belong there; if it’s in the "Today" folder you have to respond to it that day, no exceptions.

Working on multiple projects? No problem

If your work is project-based, you can create this five-folder system for each project. You may have two or three projects running at a time, and technically wind up with 10 to 15 total folders as a result—but the system still holds. After the project is complete, archive the entire structure.

Zach Hanlon is a marketing and sales expert who has worked with IBM, Oracle, and other businesses to improve their e-commerce and customer experience operations. 
This article was originally written for Fast Company.