Control Your Email Inbox with Three Folders

February 2, 2010

I'm thrilled to announce a new series of weekly videos and blog posts that I'll be publishing at called "Work Smart," which will cover personal productivity in a digital world. Long-time Lifehacker readers will recognize much of the material, but some fantastic editing and animation make each 2-4 minute video segment a whole new, fun format. The debut Work Smart video segment takes on the age old digital productivity problem: email overload.

In this 2 minute, 45 second segment, I describe my three-folder system for emptying your email inbox on a day-to-day basis, and keeping on top of everything you have to do, are waiting for, or want to keep on hand for reference.

I first wrote about this three-folder system on Lifehacker back in 2006 as a riff on Merlin Mann's five-folder system, which he published in Macworld in 2005. Of course, Merlin went on to be the king of Inbox Zero (book forthcoming!). For a much longer--and much funnier and in-depth--video on using email well, check out Merlin's hour-long Google talk about it.

I've been using this system to organize my email since I wrote the original article back in 2006, and I've found it's an absolute sanity-saver. At this point it's so ingrained in my workflow I barely think about it. Though I must admit: some weeks I'm better about it than others. This week I'm on book deadline, and I do have about 40 messages that need to be processed sitting in my inbox right now.

This video segment is the first thing I've ever shot in a studio with a backdrop, lighting, a director, sound guy, two cameras, makeup artist, and an actual script. Besides that weird thing my hair is doing, I'm so pleased to see what came out of what felt like 600 takes. Our editor and animation artist, Adam Barenblat, did an incredible job of turning a dry, boring, "create this folder and name it this" subject into something really fun to watch. Thanks a whole lot to for having me, and for the crew at Magic Bullet Media for turning out something so cool. There will be a new video every week for the next few months at, and I'll post about each new one as it gets released here as well.

If video's not your thing, here's the transcript of the segment.

Love the look of the video and the tips for organizing my email overload will be invaluable. I am going to start today on implementing these tips into my workflow. A great start to this series and I can’t wait to see what other videos and topics will be discussed.

Chad Egeland [+1]
Feb 2 10 at 9:43 am

Nice video, definitely looks like a helpful system. The 605 items in my inbox suggest I need to try this out!

One side note…the angle you’re looking away from the camera is a little awkward for the viewer. It’s far enough away that I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation I’m not a part of.

Anyway…looking forward to seeing more of these. Subscribed :)

Justin Cardinal [+5]
Feb 2 10 at 10:40 am

Awesome Gina!!!! I’ve been thinking to myself recently, “how the hell can I better organize all my emails” and this is so simple and prefect. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I love listening to you on TWIG, keep up all the great work!

I liked the video a lot. I’m looking forward to the next ones.

I use a similar system to organize my inbox workflow: Gmail powered by the Google Labs “Superstars” addon – the one that allows you to cycle trough several types of stars. When a mail arrives, I either solve it on the spot (reply/do something), mark it with a “!” (to do – urgent), yellow star (to do – later) or blue star (whenever I have the time).

True, it doesn’t have the therapeutic effect of getting me a clean inbox every day, but it keeps it tidy and manageable most days.

Feb 2 10 at 2:15 pm

Great video, looking forward to seeing this series Gina!

Tommy Day
Feb 3 10 at 6:44 am

I just started new job, and with an empty inbox, I’m looking forward to keeping it clean thanks to you Gina.

Rob Blatt [+3]
Feb 3 10 at 9:17 pm

This smells like the beginning of the Padcasting age… once it gets a camera of course. Such a simple yet effective way to move email. Thanks.

Keep up the good work at TWIG. Can’t get enough.

Feb 3 10 at 10:30 pm

Great video and advice. I’m going to give it a try. Thanks

Feb 6 10 at 12:21 pm

You got me hooked. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Great system. I definitively need a system. I’ll give your a twirl.

mojuu [+1]
Feb 6 10 at 2:12 pm

In my previous comment, it should have said: “I’ll give yours a twirl” (referring to the system) and “your a twirl”, which should kind of sleazy. Can’t have that.

mojuu [+1]
Feb 6 10 at 2:15 pm

Love the video. I’m terrible when it comes to keeping things organized. I just added these folders to both my gmail, and I’ll be adding them to my email at work tomorrow. Thanks for the great tips!

Feb 8 10 at 6:29 pm

I adopted this system for my work email just 2 days ago, and I’m loving it! I used to just use flags to categorize, but everything would still be in my inbox. I’m happy to say I have zero emails in my inbox as I write this. thanks so much!

ontheFritz [+1]
Feb 10 10 at 7:32 am

Comments are closed. Thanks for reading!