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!

Jason Lee

I have to use Outlook for work emails. Saving reference and project reference from emails to OneNote is the easiest.

In OneNote I have one section for project materials->one tab for a project->multiple pages for different info about the same project.

Another section for reference->A to Z tab->multiple pages under same alphabet.

For reference, I usually edit the page subject into a keyword, for example undert "T", there is a page called "Training: coaching workshop notes 20220705". The first part "Training:" helps me identify why this page is under "T" section.

I have hired a maid and saved her hotel, flight details under M->"Maid: flight"/"Maid: hotel".

One problem I have for GTD is that I use Apple ecosystem for personal matter. Have to inevitably save some stuff in Apple Notes, and some event in Apple Calendar instead of Outlook Calendar. It kind of scatters my stuff and so far I have no good solution except manually moving these items from Apple to Microsoft system.


Let me paraphrase, repeating back what I think that you are asking.

I would sometimes receive e-mails from colleagues that, somewhere in the text, would include information or direction on how I am to handle particular matters in particular situations. I, too, used to flag those e-mails, so that I could find them later when in a particular situation where the guidance would be useful. I, too, found the arrangement to be difficult to work with and confusing over time.

My solution was to make a Word document called, "Job Aid," which I stored someplace convenient in my electronic folder system. I would capture the notes from the various e-mails that were applicable to various situations, giving me a road map to how to proceed. Then I could either delete the e-mails or let my employer's automatic archiving system do so at the designated time, e.g., 3 months.

As time marched on and guidance invariably changed, I kept the job aid up to date. Updates didn't necessarily have to be driven by e-mails. If I learned something in a meeting or from management that impacted how I needed to do my job, I included that information, too. I also included boilerplate text for various situations that I would need to use almost all of the time, particularly for entering into the company's formal computerized action-tracking system (with contained millions of actions accumulated over decades). My job aid file ultimately grew to dozens of pages, but I was almost always able to find exactly what I needed when I needed it.

Your mileage may vary.

Best of luck in your endeavors.