Nick Cerda

Live well. Lead well.

Creating a Natural Email Filing System

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I hope you plan to do something extraordinary with your life. I hope you have a really big dream. A dream so big that it will only happen if you do something risky and audacious. One day you’re going to go for it. Until then I want you to consider this. Ordinary people become exceptional by doing ordinary things exceptionally well. (Tweet that?) I challenge you to consider – what can you do exceptionally well? What are you waiting for?

During the week I like a little chaos on my desk. Papers, post its, and pens strewn here and there are a sign of my productivity. There’s a method to the madness. But on Friday, when I leave for the weekend, I want my desk top to be completely clean. Papers get filed, pens in the pen cup and everything sorted for a fresh start on Monday. Like you, my filing drawer has neat little file folders. Each file has a tab that sticks out above the folder that indicates the contents. This type of filing system is innate and you probably have a similar filing system.

Is your email filed just as clearly?

Creating a system for reading and processing email is yet another quick and easy habit that can literally shave hours from your work week. It started with shaving 5 hours off your work week by how and how often you check email, it then moved to knowing email rules and etiquette and now we’ve moved to how you sort, file and FIND the emails you need – when you need them.


My job requires me to juggle dozens of projects at the same time. Last week I made a list of all my recurring tasks and projects. The total number was 29. The number surprised me since it never feels overwhelming. This hasn’t happened by accident. Thinking about the success I’ve had so far I can attribute it, at least in part, to my filing system. I have the information I need when I need it because I’ve put it where I can find it and I can find it quickly. Each and every time the email is exactly where I put it using the filing system I created.

Read about my system below:

  • Categorize your job into as few folders as possible but enough to make sense. The recommended number is six. I found my position naturally broke down into 5 folders. A visual of this is the screenshot on the left. Corporate wellness, resumes, wellness floor, wellness staff, ymca committees. 
 sub folders screen shotemail folders screen shot









The screenshot to the left is my main folders.
The screenshot on the right is one of my main folders cascaded to show the sub folders.

  • Create sub folders within the main folders for the projects or staff members you are responsible for. It is sometimes more efficient to not have a sub folder. I don’t worry getting every sub folder correct. I know if I can get the email in the correct main folder I can create a new sub folder if the need arises. At worst I can search for it later. You’ll see in the right screen shot my  “YMCA” main folder has 6 sub folders.

I know, two easy steps doesn’t seem complicated enough to actually work. But it does. The hard part isn’t setting up the system but trusting it enough to use it. Initially this will be an imperfect but good system. Remember all great systems begin as good imperfect systems. Each week for the first few weeks using this new system take 15 minutes a week to review and tweak where necessary.

If you have a ton of unsorted emails I don’t recommend going back and sorting them. More than likely it’s not worth your time. Instead dump all emails in your inbox into a main folder called “read mail”. If you ever need the mail again you can access it but you have the privilege of starting from scratch with your new and efficient filing system.

Step 1: Find the natural divisions and breaks in your job.
Step 2: Create main folders
Step 3: Create sub folders for each main folder. Don’t try to create a sub folder for everything. Likely these sub folders will reveal themselves to you as you try out this new filing system.

Step 4: Match your computer file folders to your email file folders.*You’ll notice I have two “main” folders that I didn’t mention in this article. These are two “dump” folders that receive email as a result of a rule I’ve created for my email. The first folder “all staff/groups” are emails sent to every supervisor level and above employee in our organization. The chance of these emails being something I need to personally respond to in a certain time period is less than 1%. So the automatic rule (set in outlook) dumps emails with “allstaff” in the to: field to this folder to read at my leisure. The other folder is my “CC” folder which is emails sent with my address in the CC: field. I am a “read only” on these emails and can get to them at a more convenient time. I’ll have a post on automatic rules soon.

If you have an email filing tip or trick I would love to hear it. I read and respond to every comment.

About Nick Cerda

I'm Nick Cerda; I help people take the next step to fulfill dreams and live better lives. My wife and I live in Asheville, North Carolina with our 3 children. Follow me on twitter, friend me on facebook, or email me.

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  • Joshua D. Melton

    I used to do this, until I took a recommendation from Michael Hyatt to create a “Processed” folder. I now send nearly all emails to this processed folder. Hyatt’s reasoning is that the search function in emails is now so specific, that you actually waste more time filing than you do searching for emails when you need them. I have found this to be true.

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