I just read an interesting article on the Business Hacks blog on (

JMStahl's picture

I just read an interesting article on the Business Hacks blog on ( that says it is more efficient to instead of organizing mail into folders to use the search field in Outlook, GMail or the Apple mail app.  In a constant search for how to be not only more effective but also effiecient I find this interesting.

Here is my question, in the effort for efficiency does this sacrifice effectiveness?  Currently I file email by project but should I consider going flat as the article indicates?

J. Michael Stahl, P.E.

jclishe's picture

I've historically been a filer throughout my career, but Outlook search became quite effective starting with Outlook 2007 so I now use a combination of search and filing. I have 3 "catch all" folders that I've named based on the retention policy of the folder: 3 months, 6 months, and FYxx (FY stands for Fiscal Year and xx equals whatever fiscal year we're currently in. Right now my company is in FY12). I use search to find things in these folders.

I also have an "Orgs" folder with subfolders for each customer and vendor that I work with. I find that its helpful to have a clean history of my correspondance with specific customers and vendors, so I still employ the filing approach here.

So in practice my folder tree in Outlook looks like this:

3 months 75% of my mail goes in this folder. This folder has a retention policy to delete items older than 3 months. Most email is timely in that it relates to current and upcoming reports, events, schedules, tasks, activities, projects, etc that will have no value 3 months from now since by then the event will have passed. I rely on search to find things in this folder.

6 months Same concept as the 3 month folder but with a longer retention policy

FYxx Anything that I want to keep for the entire fiscal year, such as benefit & compensation info, organizational announcements, etc.

Org Dedicated subfolders here for each customer, vendor, and partner that I work with.

This combined search/filing approach has worked really well for me.


piratedave's picture

 I agree that search is probably the best way to find old conversations - even when things are organized in folders.  Emails get put in the wrong folder - or some emails cross projects and I can't decide which folder to put it in.  I use search as well in Windows explorer - for the same reason.

I do still have a number of folders that I use for filtering incoming mail.  This, I find, improves my efficiency for reading e-mail.  For instance, I have a "crud to everyone" folder - my outlook rules dump every email that is not sent directly to me, but rather to a list like "all employees," into this folder.  I only open that folder once per day, and I can skim through it pretty quickly to see what I need.  I have a few other folders for specific reports that I receive on a regular basis and some from particular people.

Sometimes I will set up a special folder to store emails a specific ad hoc project.

pjean's picture

I just recently scaled down the number of folders I was using to go with the search method. The primary reason is that recent email programs incorporate tagging or categorization of messages which helps for those messages that could fit into several folders. I tag emails appropriately and then file them. If I ever need them, I have an additional method to narrow my search.

My current Outlook folders are as follows:

  • Projects - subfolders for each project, messages within subfolders may be tagged
  • Reference - subfolders for some major areas of reference, but not necessary if you use tags appropriately

Outlook (and other programs) have search/smart folders that automatically populate the folder based on search criteria. That way, you can find emails in more than one folder based on your search criteria.

Some of the tags/categories you could use:

  • Departments
  • Products
  • Action/Wait, etc.
  • CMD (career management document tag for things you want to remember you've accomplished) or some other tag for things your directs accomplished

Some of my primary search folders:

  • Action - emailed tagged with Action and then filed appropriately, but stays visible in this folder
  • Wait - similarly I tag emails with Wait then file
  • Directs - keeps all emails concerning directs in one folder
  • Boss - similar folder for boss

Here's a link describing the use of search folders in Outlook:

The main thing is having a consistent system that can handle growth.



aferraz's picture

Very good topic and article.

I have been going through this change from folders to search.

I have always used folders to organize my emails on previous projects, but on this current one my scope grew so much that I ended up with hundreds of different folders.

With the amount of emails coming in and so many folders to decide where to file, it starts getting really time consuming to get my inbox organized.

For this reason on the past few months I have filed everything related to this project in the same folder and then used the search function to finds things. It has been working well so far.

debhan's picture

 For many years, I have used the Nelson Email Organizer software with Outlook for the best of both worlds.  It organizes mail quickly (one feature: single-key access to last 10 folders used), but also indexes all email to allow  super-fast searching across mailboxes and archives.  All this, without actually updating the Outlook client in any way; it runs along-side, not as a plug-in.

If you're interested in checking it out, you can download a trial at <>.  It takes a while to get the hang of it and set it up to your liking, but you'll recover the time via efficiencies very quickly.

Technophile's picture

I strongly encourage that you not let your storage system leave emails in the inbox. The empty inbox is an important part of an effective process and has lightened my load unbelievably.

I DO store in multiple folders according to topic but I also search those folders when I need to find older files.

altadel's picture
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My organization uses Google Apps, and I tag emails for Project, Status (WaitingOn, Action, Someday), and filters-to-tag&archive for cc's, mailing lists, etc. NOTHING stays in the inbox more than a day. I find searching with the tags first helps cut down time searching, and I use GMail's keyboard shortcuts and Active Inbox ( for processing mail. I'm more efficient in GMail's webmail interface than I was with a desktop client due to the keyboard shortcuts.

Scott Delinger

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