Welcome to Week 3 of Email Month in the Tidy ’24 series! Now that you’ve archived everything to achieve a clean slate and unsubscribed from as many things as possible, it’s time to simplify the organizational structure in your email account to make sorting easy. Watch the video or read below for details on this week’s task.

Email Week 3: Simplify Your Folders

Everyone approaches sorting their email differently. Generally, people fall into one of three categories:

  1. Zero organization: emails never make it out of the inbox; you just focus on what arrived recently.
  2. Moderate organization: you sort your messages–at least sometimes–into perhaps 10-20 folders or labels.
  3. Extreme organization: you have a detailed multi-level hierarchy to put each message into based on sender, subject, and content.

I have always been tempted toward the extreme end of this scale. I like the idea of a perfectly sorted system, a veritable library catalog for my messages. However, this approach doesn’t work in practice. First, it takes too much time. Maintaining a detailed structure requires constant review to determine whether you need a new folder at some level or an existing folder should be split into multiple subcategories. Second, it ignores the convenience of a simple search. Even if you maintain highly detailed folder structures, how often do you actually browse through them to find what you want? Aren’t you more likely to type “amazon spatula” into the search box to find that kitchen utensil order confirmation from six months ago?

On the other hand, if you’re a “zero organization” type, maybe you’re already adept at using searches to find what you need. Why bother sorting messages into folders when you already have near-instant access by typing a simple query? The reason is that it sidesteps the intentional review process that helps you cut out things that don’t matter. It’s like leaving a giant mess all over your house just because you can quickly find anything you want. You still have way more stuff than you need!

The “moderate” group is a gray area; statistically, you’d probably classify yourself there. However, you may still feel that your email folders (or labels) aren’t serving you well for one reason or another. Maybe they’re too haphazardly named. Perhaps the structure you defined a decade ago no longer fits your interests.

Let’s see what we can do about this!

Action Steps:

  1. Review the messages that have arrived over the last week or two which you believe are worth keeping. (Hopefully, this is a small number!)
  2. Consider a small set of high-level categories that could reasonably contain them–not too detailed and not more than one level deep without an excellent reason.
  3. Create these folders (or labels) and move any messages you’ve already read into those folders.

As with one of last week’s steps, Step #2 is highly subjective. Aim for a maximum of a dozen; this isn’t a hard limit, but a good starting point. Keeping track of that many categories in your head is reasonable, and keeping the number small helps ensure everything is distinct between categories. You should be able to figure out where a message belongs quickly without wondering which place it fits in better.

Here’s an example of the folders that I use:

  • Family – Everything to and from family members
  • Friends – Everything to and from friends or acquaintances
  • Work – Everything to and from coworkers or having to do with work
  • Orders – Confirmations for all purchases or payments (only the initial transaction, not shipping or delivery confirmations!)
  • Registration – Important details such as usernames or access links when creating new accounts
  • Banking – Everything having to do with financial management, except orders
  • Health – Everything concerning medical, dental, vision, or other health-related topics
  • Tidy Bytes – Everything about Tidy Bytes 💾😁

These eight folders provide almost all of the structure I need regularly. For transparency, I do have one level of subfolders in two of those places: Work, where I split things into half a dozen work-specific categories, and Tidy Bytes, where I separate stuff like newsletters, surveys, and general contact emails because I actually do need to browse through them occasionally.

Note that if you’re using an email platform built around labels rather than folders (like Gmail), you can assign multiple labels to the same message. I’ve found this to add the same management overhead as getting too specific or deep with an organizational structure. It has valid use cases, but if you’re reading this to help organize your email, you will probably benefit more from keeping everything as simple as possible.

Also, for label-based email platforms, moving might require two steps: first, to assign the new label (e.g. “Friends”), and second, to remove the old label (e.g. “Inbox”). In Gmail, removing the Inbox label is the same as using the “Archive” button. That’s all it does.

If you’d like feedback on what folder structure would work well for you, or if you’d like any help with the organization process, reply with a question to this email or reach out on this week’s Tidy Bytes Community Facebook group post.

How Does This Help?

Creating a simple collection of categorized “buckets” for whatever email messages you decide to keep allows you to consider what’s worth keeping. It provides a permanent home that is not your inbox, reminding you that anything still in your inbox needs to be processed before you’re done with it. Further, allowing yourself to create only a limited number of high-level folders encourages a system that isn’t too hard to maintain because of its specificity. You can recover time and avoid stress by giving yourself only eight “email buckets” instead of 50.

Who Does This Help?

Those of you on the “zero organization” end of the spectrum will find more clarity and visibility into your incoming mail flow. Those on the “extreme organization” end will find a more manageable, less time-consuming system to work with. If you’re in the middle, you’ll likely experience a combination of both of those benefits.

Who Does This NOT Help?

If you already have an efficient folder structure that is easy to maintain and allows you to move messages you want to keep out of your inbox once you’ve processed them, this week’s task won’t help. Still, try to think about any unintentional friction your system creates to see if there are any ways to improve it–even if that’s just combining or renaming one or two of the folders you already have to improve clarity or to feel more intuitive.

Or, if your system is already working well enough that you don’t feel any stress about what’s in your inbox, don’t change it just because I’m recommending something new. However, you might miss out on a more pleasant and streamlined experience because you’re continuing to use something “good enough” without thinking about it.

Quick Review

For Week 3, your task is to simplify your folders. Review the emails you’ve received recently to determine some general categories they fall into, then create those folders (or labels) and move everything you’ve already read into the new structure. If you have questions about this task or anything related to digital organization, reply to this email or comment on this week’s Tidy Bytes Community Facebook group post.

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