Two Ways to Organize Your Email

Should you construct a File Plan? Or, is a Big Bucket approach the best option? In this video, Dr. Melissa Gratias discusses the pros and cons of these two methods of organizing your email.

Don’t want to watch the video?  A transcript is below.



Hi, my name is Dr. Melissa Gratias and I’m a productivity specialist. I help overworked and overwhelmed people feel focused, balanced, and successful.


Today, I’m talking about email. Email is still the bane of many people’s existence. It has this gruesome habit of just building up in our inbox, making us feel like we’re getting absolutely nothing done (even though we’re working it almost all day every day).


I want to start out by reading you something that one of my clients wrote.  Email is their struggle as well as yours. Here’s what they said:


Within a single session of focused effort, I was able to painlessly eliminate over 11,000 worthless emails.  While I still have some work to do regarding file plan set up, I can already see that this program is going to be extremely beneficial to my career and my sanity given the never-ending torrent of information, requests, and inquiries received on a daily basis.


The first thing I want to draw your attention to is the number 11,000. He had 11,000 worthless emails. We talked about some criteria for purging email, and he was able to get rid of a lot of messages. That cut his inbox down by at least 50% at the time. He had more to do, but that was a great start.


Then he mentioned a second thing, something called a file plan, which brings me to the two primary ways to organize email.



Two Ways to Organize Email


1.) The Big Bucket Approach


I’ll start with the big bucket approach. If you’re organizing your email into a big bucket approach, you might have five or fewer total folders (or labels) for your email, i.e., big buckets.


Big buckets are really general categories and will have thousands of emails in each folder. The way you navigate your email and retrieve past emails is by using search tools. In Outlook, the search tools are really robust. You click in the search field and a contextual tab opens up at the top. You can enter some search criteria and really plow through thousands of emails with relative ease.


So, a big bucket approach is a small handful of very general folders, and you use search to navigate.


The advantage of the big bucket approach is that it’s easy to file. You don’t have to expand and collapse a lot of folders, remember where you put other things, and create new folders. It’s really easy on the front end because you just drag emails into their big bucket.


It can be more cumbersome on the back end. This haystack of information does get pretty big, and sometimes your search results can be unwieldy.


To summarize, the big bucket approach is easy on the front end, and potentially more difficult on the back end when you have to retrieve an email.



2.) The File Plan Approach


This manager whose testimonial I just shared above used what we call a file plan approach. His company had specific records management policies where certain classes of records needed to be deleted after three years, and certain classes of records needed to be deleted after eight years, and ten years, and one year, and so on.


The company had a 40-page records management policy, and people need to follow it. We needed to structure his email folders to be consistent with the retention policies. So, for him, a file plan was a more appropriate approach.


In a file plan approach, rather than the big buckets, you start off with a group of folders I call Grandparents. You come up with four or five Grandparent folders, which are the general things that you are accountable for doing in your job. The subfolders of those are the Parents, and then the subfolders of those are the Children, and then the Grandchildren, and then the Great-Grandchildren.


A file plan is a nested foldering system that expands out horizontally. What you should not see is a long vertical list of, say, 200 folders.  Folders should be nested into more general categories.  There are certain instances where a file plan is very appropriate, such as with this manager.


A file plan approach has advantages and disadvantages. It’s more difficult on the front end when you’re filing. You do have to expand and collapse folders and find where you need to put something. So, it can be more cumbersome on the front end.


But, it’s much easier on the back end when you are retrieving and managing your emails later on. For example, this manager was able to delete all the emails that expired at the end of the year all together without having to use search terms and go through big buckets.


So, a big bucket approach and a file plan approach – those are two ways of organizing your email.


Here is another person who has gone through productivity coaching with me and worked on her email:


I wanted to thank you for sitting with me and to let you know that the next day I took the plunge and deleted over 3K emails, I now have less than 2K in my inbox and they are all related to the last 5 months.  I am working on them also.


This testimonial should give you something to keep in mind, even if you’re not going to organize your emails at all…


Be willing to delete emails you don’t need.


The best thing that you can do is to stop that sharp growth curve on your email. If you do nothing else with organizing your emails, make sure that you’re deleting things that you know you no longer need. Just swipe left and delete or right-click and delete on your computer. Delete emails that you no longer need, because there’s no need to organize emails if they shouldn’t even be there in the first place.



This is Dr. Melissa Gratias, productivity specialist. If you like my videos, you will love coaching. Give me a call or shoot me an email. Let’s schedule a no-cost-to-you phone call where we can ask each other some questions to determine if productivity coaching is the right thing for you.


In the meantime, be productive, delete email, and have a great day.


Conquer Your Email Today eBook

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Read my eBook Conquer Your Email Today…because there is no tomorrow.

Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.

1 Comment

  1. Joyce A Teal

    Melissa, I totally agree on listing folders horizontally rather than vertically. I was really frustrated with the time it took to find and put emails in the correct folder. Clicked on the button that changed my folders from vertical to horizontal – saved so much time because I could see so many more folders at one time.
    Another great article! Thank you.


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