Christopher's Email Filing & Retrieval Method
Email Filing In MS Outlook For Subsequent Retrieval
I have two goals when organizing my email:
- Ensure that I don’t miss anything (since the volume of email is
- Ensure I am able to easily retrieve information.
The discussion below is divided into two sections: how I file, and
how I find. The two are directly linked; since my “find” technique builds
upon the filing method.
A. How I File
Here’s how I organize, along with some “why” notes (note that I have
been using this system since 1997 or 1998):
- Several times a day I file email in my Inbox and Sent boxes. This
is how I track what items need attention. Once I have dealt with an
email I file it (see below). I know that anything unfiled requires my
- For example, if I receive a request for something, it sits in
my Inbox until I reply. I use quoted reply and delete the original
email when I reply. My reply sits in my Sent Items folder if I haven’t
completely fulfilled the request; otherwise I file it. If the original
email contained an attachment, then instead of deleting it I might
file it (if I thought the attachment might be needed later).
- Outlook’s Autoarchive feature is a key component of how I keep my
email organized; you’ll see several references to it herein.
- I have three local PST files open from Outlook at all times: “Attic.pst”,
“Personal Folders.pst”, and “archive.pst”. Inside Outlook they are named,
“Attic“, “Personal Folders“, and “Archive 2005-06 – “, respectively.
The names of the first two are constant, the third one changes over
time (although the .PST filename Outlook opens never changes).
- Attic — I save all
email for six months; even the email I deem not worth filing for long
term storage. At least once a day I move all email from my Deleted
Items folder into a subfolder in Attic named YYYY-DD. On the first
day of each month I create a new YYYY-DD folder and delete the oldest
one; so, as you can see in the image below, I always have 7 subfolders.
Each of these subfolders, plus the overarching Attic folder, has Autoarchiving
turn off (see image at right). Saving all deleted email for 6 months
allows me to retrieve something I missed the first time around; something
that saves my butt a couple of times a year. Note that Attic and all
its subfolders have their Autoarchiving settings set to “Do not archive
items in this folder.“
- Personal Folders — This is where I
file my email; when in step 1 I said that several times a day I move
messages from my Inbox and Sent Items folders. As you can see, the
structure is pretty simple. I work for a consulting firm, so the folders
are indicative of a consulting firm’s business structure. Some folders,
like Engagements (which are the projects I work), change over time.
Other folders, like Practices, do not. To manage the size of the Personal
Folders.pst file, and keep it from becoming overly large, I use Autoarchiving.
Each time I create a new folder in the Personal Folders.pst I explicitly
set its Autoarchive settings. Some folders are set to 12 months (for
example, “Personal”) and others to shorter periods of time. Emails
related to a specific transaction eventually get moved out and periodically
I check the various subfolders there and remove the empty ones.
- Archive 2005-06 – (the archive.pst
file) — The .PST file has the name “archive.pst” because that is Outlook’s
default name for that file and my philosophy is to change as few defaults
settings as possible. I have the overall Outlook Autoarchive option
set to never permanently delete anything; rather, it moves mail to
the archive.pst file (see image to the right). When Outlook moves
an item to the archive folder, it recreates the folder structure of
the original PST file; so, my archive.pst file automatically contains
the same folder structure as my Personal Folders.pst file. The internal-to-Outlook
name of my archive.pst file changes periodically because I keep my
.pst files from getting larger than 500 MB in size. Hence, when archive.pst
approaches 500 MB I rename it to something that indicates the period
of time it covers; for example, “Archive 2004-06 – 2005 05.pst” (the
next time Autoarchive runs, it creates a new archive.pst file).
Some final notes on filing:
- when I work a large, long-term project I create a PST solely for
use with that project. In that project-specific .PST file I create a
subfolder structure identical to the one found in Personal Folders.pst;
that is, a subfolder with the project’s name sitting inside a “Transactions”
folder. This is a slight violation of my “only 3 .PST files open” rule,
but by maintaining the folder structure I enable finding the data later.
Also, if that transaction folder grows larger than 500 MB then I close
it and create a new single-transaction .PST; adding a date range to
the filename. For example, on a recent 2.5 year long project I had 10
.PSTs, named “PName 2005-02 -- 2005-04.pst”, “PName 2005-05 -- 2005-07.pst”,
- I have moved all of my .PST files out of the default Outlook location
(buried somewhere in a hidden folder) and put them into a folder called
Outlook that sits inside my “My Documents” folder. This includes the
archive.pst file (you have to change the location pointed to by the
Autoarchive options panel at ToolsàOptionsà[Other]àAutoarchive).
This makes monitoring .PST file sizes much easier
B. How I Find
For many years I used the above filing technique along with a manual
searching method; that is, because the files all have a date range in
the filename I was easily able to open one or two PSTs and then use MS Outlook’s Advanced Find panel to search out the specific message I was
looking for. Searches spanning long periods of time were difficult because
Advanced Find will only search one .PST file at a time.
A couple of years ago I licensed a copy of X1 (see
The product is relatively inexpensive: $50. X1 allows all of your .PST
files to be searched at the same time—without the need for those .PST files to be open inside your MS Outlook session; however, to quickly narrow the
scope of your searches you need to have consistently organized your mail.
Note, X1 also indexes all of the other documents on your hard drive.
X1 is much more effective than the free Google desktop search because
of the manner in which it presents its search results and because it allows
you to file mail items from its interface. It is also much better than
the free MS email search plug-in, Lookout; because Lookout is limited
to indexing 1 GB of email (after which it begins to crash).
©Copyright 2008, Christopher & Jean Rath
Address: 1371 Major Rd., Ottawa, ON, Canada K1E 1H3
Last updated: 2008/04/10 @ 22:16:47 ( )