How to avoid email stress, with just three folders

2019, Esther van der Storm


Unread mails: 4617. I look from the iPad screen to my mother and back again. Everywhere on her screen are red dots. Messages all over the place. “How can you live with the knowledge that you haven’t read so many emails?!” I ask her. She shrugs her shoulders. Do you recognize yourself in this? Then stop reading, because this blog is not for you. For the rest of humanity who loves a tidy inbox, but wants to spend less time on it: continue. 


I myself belong to the last category. For me those red dots are a huge trigger: those notifications have to go. Emails have to be read, answered, thrown away or archived. That used to be a separate item on my daily to-do list. My mailbox exploded several times a week and it took me an awful lot of time to keep overview. Mails to which I still had to respond, mails of which I had to monitor the follow-up and mails that had to be archived: everything was crisscrossed.


No fun

My archive consisted of a very extensive folder structure. So before I had unfolded the right folder and could store an e-mail, it took me a few minutes per message. I only managed this process with a cup of good coffee (or rather: a good glass of wine), because archiving… that’s really no fun at all.


I decided: it has to be done differently. In a blog on Frankwatching I read how you can manage your inbox in a super easy way with only three folders (four if you count your inbox). I tested it and was so excited that several friends and coworkers now also manage their email this way.


Only 3 folders?!

Yes, really. This is how it works:

  • You create three folders in your mail account. The folder ACTION, the folder WAIT and the folder ARCHIVE. All incoming mails disappear into one of these three folders.
  • In the ACTION folder you put things that you now have to actively do something with. In the PLEASE WAIT for mails you have to monitor for follow-up. And the folder ARCHIVE… that speaks for itself.


Folder structure: a waste of time

Does it sound too simple to you, those three folders? Understandable. I, too, thought I needed to create all kinds of subfolders for assignments, leads, finances, communication… Until I realized that I can find most e-mails using the search function in my e-mail. I rarely use that folder structure. It’s a waste of my time to sit down and keep track of those folders. If your search function works well, you can put all archive e-mails in one big pile. In the months that I’ve been working with only three folders, I haven’t felt the need to recreate the extensive folder structure.


End your day with an empty inbox

I end up with an empty inbox every day. I drag the mails to their folders and my inbox is a big, empty oasis. Love it! When I have time I grab the ACTION-box (I usually do that twice a day) and the WAIT-box I look at about twice a week. And that gives me some much peace and time. I recommend this way of working to everyone, because:


  • It forces you to make a conscious decision about mails that need to be followed up, instead of seeing them scrolling over and over again. That makes you work more productively, because you don’t pick up something ‘as fast’ all the time.
  • You’re less distracted by everything that’s still in your inbox and you always have to think what to do with it. As a result, you finally get to do what you wanted to do today.
  • You literally and figuratively have more space to manage your mailbox: in your inbox and in your head. Everything is in the right folder and if you go through those folders twice a week, 80 percent can go to the archive in no time. Much more efficient!


Do you also give yourself an empty mailbox? Test this method for at least one week, preferably two. If it doesn’t work for you, you can always create an extensive folder structure.


In any case, I am enthusiastic. I’m going to use the time I saved myself this week for something very important: convincing my mother. Because over four thousand unread e-mails, that’s just really not OK.

What kind of feeling does your inbox evoke in you? I’m curious about your experiences. If you decide to work with the three folders as a result of this blog, please let us know!