A brief description of the 3 Folder Email System that I use to manage email. Like the 14 Folder Paper System it has worked relatively well for me over the past several years. I’ll also freely admit that I fall off the wagon frequently and don’t always follow through with all the steps and processes here. We are all a work in progress.

There are a few intermixed goals for the 3 folder system; to get things done, not lose track of things that need doing, and minimize the time spent looking at the same messages over and over again. This assumes you rarely look up old messages. That you are willing to spend more time searching when you do want an old message. And that you can accumulate time savings by not pre-sorting all your messages into folders when you receive them.

The System

For email there are 3 folders:

  • Inbox: where new things come in
  • Action Required: with things that need further action.
  • Archive: where everything goes when it’s done (also the Sent folder*)

The Inbox is self-explanatory if you use email. The big difference here is that the goal is to scan and empty the Inbox every time you look through it. You don’t want to read and re-read the same message several times. For each item in the Inbox

  • If it is something that can be done quickly (<2 min) and you have the inclination, get it done then move the message to Archive.
  • If it is something that will take more time or you just don’t want to do it now, move the message into Action Required.
  • If it is spam, junk, or ephemeral, move it to Trash. Ephemeral are things like “reset your password” or “your shipment has arrived” emails.
  • If it is something you want to keep for later, move it to Archive
  • Aim for nothing left in your Inbox when you are done. Rinse, repeat.

The Action Required folder needs regular attention. This is your task list in many ways. Keep things in here you are working on that need your action and attention. Move them to Archive when completed. This is where you will likely spend most of your time.

  • Pay attention to due dates and deadlines here.
  • Use flags or tags to mark important or unimportant threads.
  • Move things to Archive when they are complete.
  • Check for old things that were resolved and you did not yet Archive them.
  • Aim for keeping this folder small, which means you are getting things done!

The Archive folder is where everything goes when it’s completed, after you have read and digested it, or you just plain don’t want to delete it yet. It will grow very large over time and that’s ok. You could set some expiration rules on this folder, e.g. auto-remove things older than 1 year. I’ve never done that. Though I have done annual exports every so often. That is to export all messages from “2022” into some archive format.

I used to use a 4th Reference folder to hold key materials that might be needed quickly without a complex search. Here would go instructions for a mailing list, how to connect to a system, directions to a location, and other similar Reference items. Searching has gotten a lot better over the years, so I don’t use or have this folder any longer. You might use it to keep track of a link to a shared document, though I use bookmarks for these now.

*Many systems also have a Sent or Sent Items folder which is relevant in that your Archive is really split into two folders. If you have an export process you will want to export these along with your Archive.


This was adapted from “43 Folders” from Merlin Mann and “Inbox Zero”. Though his site 43folders.com has not gotten updates in over a decade and I cannot find the original article. My system here is a combination of these two that covers both paper and email. For both systems, the goal is to look at things as few times as possible and not forget to pay bills and get things done.