How to Be an Email Productivity Ninja

Written by Graham Allcott Wednesday 02 January 2019
It’s new year, time to get more productive. These are email sub-folders that work, says the UK's top ‘productivity ninja’
Computer with email inbox opened

One of the main reasons that an email inbox becomes stressful is that your brain is trying to use the inbox itself to perform too many different functions. Having too many folders is bad for productivity because it creates unnecessary thinking work.

Most people do not trust their Outlook or other computer program to help them retrieve messages and therefore set up lots of folders, each with very specific themes, to try to ensure they trust their folders. However, from within each folder in Outlook, you can arrange the emails there by name, by subject, by date – and actually in a whole host of other ways too. Alongside this, there is obviously the separate ability to run a search. Your search can cover your whole inbox.

Why Having Less Email Folders is More Efficient

Not convinced? Think about it this way: imagine you are holding a screwed up piece of paper in your hand and you want to throw it away into the bin, making sure it lands in the bin and doesn’t bounce out on the floor. I am now going to offer you the choice of two different things to aim at. Do you want to be aiming at a huge bucket with a large open mouth, or at a dozen tiny cups on the floor? And while I’m at it, I can’t tell you for sure which of those trinkets will be the correct one to aim at. If you’re clinging on to the need to keep hundreds of folders and sub-folders, think about how this relates to your email usage. A smaller number of bigger and braver buckets removes friction and helps you make quicker and better decisions. And here’s the really counter-intuitive bit: since there are fewer places to look when you do want to retrieve an email, emails are actually easier to find, not harder, when you have fewer folders.

Some Useful Email Folders to Keep

The exact folders you need will depend on your role and responsibilities and specifically, on how important the themes or categorised storage of emails is to your role. However, there are a number of folders that over the years I have found very useful. I spend a lot of time talking to people about their email folders and along the way I have picked up a few good tips from people and also noticed what tends to work well – or not.

Confirmations / ‘The safe place’

In this folder I keep all kinds of email confirmations: ticket bookings for theatre events, boarding passes for flights, licence keys for software I’ve bought, emails confirming passwords or things I might forget.


I store all financial information separately. I decided to do this after spending a day piecing together all my financial transactions for my accountant one year after a financial year end, but it’s equally as useful if you’ve working in a company where you’re dealing with purchase orders, invoices and the like.

F&F / Personal

Friends and family. Many people also call this one ‘Personal’ or ‘Home’. There isn’t much logic to needing to keep these separate to be honest – it just makes sense to a lot of people. Could I still find the round-robin email suggesting travel plans for next month’s get-together if it was in a big bucket folder called ‘Archive’ that also contains lots of work emails? Yes of course, but it seems to make psychological sense to put some distance between work and life.

Circulars and bacon

Outlook and Gmail have their own ways of separating emails. Gmail’s ‘primary’, ‘social’ and ‘promotions’ tab; Outlook’s ‘focused inbox’ and ‘other inbox’. What the machines are trying to clear away is the ‘bacon’, not quite spam, but bad for us if we have it all the time. It’s worth thinking about what’s still landing in the primary or focused inbox that also fits into the ‘bacon’ category: those annyong all-staff emails, or the people whose updates you find occasionally useful, but are never urgent. Set up a ‘circulars’ or ‘bacon’ folder, and then it’s time to get ruthless. Set up rules in your Outlook so that bacon emails can be filed straight into that folder rather than even appearing in your inbox at all. The aim here is to reduce noise, and reduce the number of those tiny decisions (‘Do I need to keep this? Do I need to read this?’) – all tiny things on their own, but you’ll be amazed at how much they add up to a big chore if you don’t deal with them ruthlessly.

‘Job’ / ‘Organisation’

Yes, I have one folder where I keep everything related to my work and organisation. One. No subfolders below this. No intricate client-b-client archive, no dated workshop archive. One folder. Do I lose stuff? Rarely. Do I lose stuff less often now with this system than I did when I had hundreds of sub-folders as well? Yes, of course! Hopefully by now you’re convinced of the reason for this. And I challenge you to experiment with your own folders and do the same.

Z_General reference / Miscellaneous / Any other stuff

Anything that doesn’t fit any of the above categories goes into a catch-all bucket called ‘General Reference’. (I use ‘Z_’ to make sure this folder appears at the bottom of my list so that it’s out of the way). It’s usually important to have clear definitions of your folders, but this might be the one exception. However, this folder plays an important role: it prevents you from feeling the need to create lots of folders for new situations. Got that urge to create a new folder for one email? Throw it into ‘General Reference’ instead!

This is a lightly edited extract from How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott (Icon Books, 2019). Graham Allcott is a speaker, an entrepreneur and the founder of Think Productive, one of the world’s leading providers of business productivity workshops and coaching. There are lots more inbox tips in his book.