How Many Folders? Only One

On this post I’m going to touch a controversial topic – the need to use the Outlook folders system. Let me start with the conclusion – we do NOT need any folders except for one. It might sound outrages and impossible but it is really the logical conclusion when analyzing it. I’ll explain in a minute.

I have decided to write this post this week after I have mentored one of the leaders in my group. Seeing her excitement when she has deleted her entire folder list was the greatest gift for me. She was brave and she has remained with a single folder. Good for her. Now let’s see if you can do the same.


Our intuition in emails classification is creating folders by category and classifying the emails according to topics. It seems like the reasonable approach to use, right? Wrong. Let’s talk about a few aspects here.

The first aspect is the scalability of the method over time. This method is not scalable. We all know it, but we don’t want to admit it. We always start with ~5 folders system (e.g. project X, project Y, administration, purchase, courses). It is clean and nice and we think we have nailed it down. Then comes another project, project Z, so we add it as a folder. Project X and Y are already over, but we don’t delete those folders, as we might want to use those emails in the future. So, after 6 month we triple the number of the folders we have.

OK, so we have more folders then we planned to. After 2 years we have ~50 folders. No big deal, right? Wrong. This is a huge deal, because now our classification process takes much longer. Let’s assume we have received an email from our boss about the need to improve the quality of our product. Mmm… this can go to the current “project” folder, it can go to our “procedures” folder and it can go to our “boss-related” folder. Confusing. So, we stop for a minute and start thinking where the best place is to classify it.

Let’s try to analyze what we actually do in this confusing phase – we are trying to figure out in which folder we would search it in the future, in case we would need to review this email again. And of course when this time in the future comes, we don’t really remember where we have classified it and are starting to think where we have put that email – was is it in the project folder, the boss-related folder, the procedure folder, or maybe in the miscellaneous folder that we have recently created?

To sum it up, over time our folder list increases, which increases the time it takes us to classify our emails and search for them later on. As time goes by, our efficiency decreases. What a bummer.


At this point in the post, we should all feel less comfortable with our folders system. Let’s challenge this system and see what we can do better for being more efficient here.

Pareto could help us here (the 80-20 rule). I say that 80% of the emails that we classify into folders are never being searched by us in the future. The rest of the emails (20%) that we do search, we can’t really find easily due to our endless folder list.


Therefore, the logic conclusion would be that by not classifying the emails into folders, we could save the entire classification time. This can save us 1-2 hours a week (I’ll leave you do the math). There is even a bigger prize here – we remove the minded burden that is tight up with our email review procedure. When we stop classifying emails, it starts to be easier to review emails and move them out of the Inbox (we would talk about the zero Inbox approach in the future).

What a relief… no more emails to classify. But now comes the day where we really need to find an email (remember, there is the 20% part that we do want to search). How do we do it? Easily – using the Outlook search system. Want to know how? Read the post I wrote about “search it, search it, till you make it”.

Now you need to brave enough to take this step. Being honest here, it took me 2 month to do that leap many years ago. So I understand it is hard, but you need to do that. I would suggest to do that in 2 phases:

  1. Phase 1: Continue using your current email classification system. BUT, when you reach the point that you need to search an email, DO NOT go to your folders. Search it through the Outlook search engine.
  2. Phase 2: after a couple of weeks, where you managed to find all your emails using the Outlook search engine (not using your folder list), you are ready to stop using your folder list. At this point you can create a folder named “Processed” and move all emails from your folders into the “Processed” folder. After that, delete your folders and you are done.

Good luck!

BTW – I wasn’t completely honest with you – I do hold a couple of more folders, but for a different purpose. I would tell you all about it in my next post, so stay tuned…

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Erez Morabia

I’m an engineer and a leader in the computer software industry which is passionate about leading teams, embracing new technologies and improving soft skills for work efficiency.

2 thoughts on “How Many Folders? Only One”

    1. Hi Dennis, you have correctly spotted the exception in this post. This is exactly what I meant when I have stated that “I wasn’t completely honest with you – I do hold a couple of more folders”. I do use automatic classification, but minimally and carefully. I’ll write a short post on that next week.

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