Email reference folders setup?


I (have to) use outlook for work and like many of you I get a lot of emails daily, some of which is immediate trash, some is generic reference which is department or organisation-wide, some is more specific to my department, team, or role.

Actionable items are flagged and appear in MS To Do, where I can rename them, link them to projects, move them to a context list etc. I feel this workflow is slick and really works for me.

However, I'm hitting an obstacle with my email reference. As I was implementing my system, I created a lot of reference folders for sender/topic/area etc. I found many of them ended up only containing a few emails I wasn't actually referencing, but my past self thought they may have been important. For example, our organisation's updates on our Covid policies.

Other reference folders were huge. For example, a colleague who I work closely with but who is remote/hybrid. We use email to communicate a lot, and I often use her emails as reference in my day to day work. This folder was becoming difficult to manage because it became so large and amorphous and kind of defeated itself given it was supposed to be a place to quickly find stuff.

I decided to just use a few folders for simplicity: inbox, CC (a rule moves any emails I'm cc'd into here to read through in my weekly review - they're rarely important), hold, and archive. Hold is a kind of pending/definitely will need, where I keep anything I'll need to reference for an upcoming meeting or current project. I keep no more than a screen's worth of emails in here to ensure it remains at-a-glance. I empty this out during weekly review and add anything for upcoming stuff.

I've found, as you can probably guess, that there inevitably are things in archive that it turns out I need, and while search sometimes works, outlook's doesn't seem very powerful, and I sometime get really weird and irrelevant results even though I know I'm using good search terms. I know GTD recommends not using one big reference folder for this very reason, but the simplicity appealed to me, and the list of reference folders wasn't really working for me either.

How does everyone manage email reference, and does anyone have any tips for a compromise between these two strategies?

FYI I don't use outlook as my primary tool. My system is spread out between To Do (actions, project lists, agendas, waiting for), pulling in emails from outlook and messages from Teams if they actionable, OneNote (project support, action support, meeting notes, any reference-type material that I've created myself, feedback from others etc). I don't really want to get into moving emails into these places because I feel their edges are really clean and work well.

Thanks in advance!