How To Tame Your Outlook Folders

File Drawer

Does this look like one of your file drawers? How about your Outlook folders about the same? Because your Outlook folders are electronic it doesn’t mean they’re neat and tidy. Here’s the key. If you’re spending more than two or three minutes searching through your Outlook folders each time you need something, then it’s time to re-think how you’re using them.

One of the biggest frustrations my clients face is that they’re “always looking for things”. It is a major time waster.

If you’ve attended on of our basic Outlook workshops then you know we teach you how to create and use folders to store e-mail after it’s processed. When I do one-on-one coaching I find the people who struggle the most with finding things (and even front-end e-mail processing) are those with lots of folders (sometimes even dozens).

By having too many folders you increase the number of places where things are not. Too many folders often causes paralysis when deciding where to file something. I see it all the time while coaching. “where do I put this…if I put it there I might forget…how about this folder…no I might forget it’s there to” yada yada yada. I’m thinking of putting a heart rate monitor on coaching clients to watch their anxiety levels.

Here are a few simple tips to keep your Outlook folders under control:

  1. Use a few a few very broad categories. For example have one folder called “Customers” as opposed to one folder for each customer. Don’t forget, Outlook can sort that folder several different ways so why impose tight restrictions when the computer can find and sort in seconds. Use that power.
  2. Use only one folder for processed mail. “What’s that”, you ask, “didn’t you initially teach me to create multiple folders?” Yes I did, but there are other ways depending upon how you work. The important thing is to get old e-mail out of the Inbox (one of our basic principles). You can create one folder called “Completed E-mail” and drag everything you want to keep into it after its processed.
  3. Use Outlook categories instead of (or in combination with) folders. Applying a category (or categories) to each message you store gives you the ability to find and group it much faster. Just like your folders (and paper filing system) keep your categories broad.
  4. Use Outlook’s views, sorting, Search Folders and Show in Groups functions. Computers are great at finding things (especially when we give a little thought before storing them) and showing the results to us in multiple ways. Take advantage of this power to save time for you. I’ll also discuss this in more detail in a future post.

Filling is an art in itself. For more reading on this subject I highly recommend The Organized Executive by Stephanie Winston. I read it back in the 1980s (it’s been updated several times since) and it made a huge impact on how I managed my work. It’s a classic in the area of time management and is just as relevant today as it was then.