Use Categories Instead of Multiple Folders when Filing Mail in Outlook

June 15, 2015

You may know that I highly recommend using Outlook Categories instead of using multiple Outlook folders when filing mail. Categories take a little time to learn at first, but after that they are very easy to use. Best of all, they save a huge amount of time when compared to using topic-named folders.

Why Categories Save Tons of Time Compared to Topic-Named Folders

Here are the reasons why filing with Outlook Categories is so much faster than using multiple topic-named folders:

  1. You can apply more than one category to an e-mail, so you don’t waste time trying to decide which folder to put it in. The e-mail shows up in each category group without taking additional space.
  2. Categories can be grouped in your single-folder filing system, which makes visual searching easy (more on that below).
  3. Outlook rules for auto-filing incoming mail work much better when filing to categories than when filing to folders because they leave the e-mail in the Inbox where you can still read it. Then just drag all mail you are done with to the single folder.

Can Group by Category in a Single Folder

As I just mentioned above, once you apply categories to e-mail, you can file them in a single folder (I call it the Processed Mail folder). Then, when you need to search for them you can group them by category as shown in the image above—it’s similar to having a set of folders all in one folder. You have all the advantages of a single folder, and all the advantages of a multi-folder system.

Next Steps

To learn more about using Categories for filing Outlook mail, study Chapter 8 in my Outlook book, or study Lessons 17 and 18 in my Outlook Video Course.

13 thoughts on “Use Categories Instead of Multiple Folders when Filing Mail in Outlook

    1. Michael Linenberger Post author

      Erron, what kind of mail server is your account on? That is most likely the limiting factor. Michael

      Reply
  1. Michael Einstein

    I use categories as part of my task management process in outlook and for categorizing my tasks, but haven’t had a lot of luck using them as part of my Email workflow.

    I have found that I use high-level folders to file my messages, and then use the power of the Outlook Search tool to find messages when I (rarely) need to locate them.

    However, I definitely do see that using categories can be a nice alternative to replace my current high-level folder system.

    As stated by Erron above, a problem I have with categories is that because I travel quite a bit and use my iPhone for Email, there is no ability to categorize Emails using Apple’s Outlook iphone app. It will let me “flag” a message or move it to a folder, but no option to categorize. I think its just a limitation of Apple’s iphone app. This means I can’t really “process” my Emails using my iPhone, and would have to “double touch” them again when I had access to my laptop. That is why I stick with “flagging” for items I want to follow-up on and moving to my high-level “folders” for items I want to save for future reference (PS: I still miss my old blackberry – not a great web or application device, but boy was that thing great at synching my Outlook Emails and it had so many more Email management options).
    Regards,
    Michael

    Reply
    1. Michael Linenberger Post author

      Thanks Michael Eintein. Yes, there are very few category tools on native smartphone mail apps, and that can be an issue. I see four alternate strategies to pick from to make up for that:
      -1–switch to a mail app that -does- allow you to assign categories. Touchdown (on both iPhone and Android) allows that. See this link: http://www.michaellinenberger.com/blog/best-iphone-and-android-mail-app-for-myn-and-1mtd/
      -2–setup rules on your desktop copy of Outlook for auto-categorizing as much as possible. Then for mail that does not trigger those rules, categorize them manually when back at your desktop. This is the approach I use and it works great for me because I end up manually categorizing very little mail. See my article on categorizing with rules here: http://www.michaellinenberger.com/blog/use-outlook-rules-to-auto-categorize-incoming-e-mail-free-video/
      -3–consider using a small windows tablet when mobile, one with a full desktop copy of Outlook.
      -4–Continue to use folder tools on native apps when mobile, and then when back at your desktop (or laptop), bulk assign categories inside each folder (in one step) and then dump the contents into the Processed Mail folder. This may seem odd or extra work, but there are so many advantages to having all mail in one folder that it might make this worth it. (Just have to remember to do it each day.)
      Michael

      Reply
  2. Michael Einstein

    Michael,

    Thanks for the ideas.

    Unfortunately, because my iPhone Mail is part of my corporate email system, I don’t have the option to change to another Iphone client…. I’m stuck with the native Mail app..

    But agree that the best approach is to file what you can on the iPhone, and then do any categorizations when I am back on my laptop with access to the native Outlook client.

    I don’t do a large amount of categorization for Emails.. I generally only categorize my tasks and try to rely only on a few high-level Email folders and the power of Outlook “Search” to find things. I probably also need to look at building out a few more “auto-categorization rules” for my incoming Email. That will definitely reduce the amount of manual categorization I need to perform.

    Regards,

    Michael

    Reply
  3. Jean

    Hi,
    I’m trying to organize my outlook 2013 (exchange 2010) mailbox using categories but I wonder …
    How do you filter emails by categories in touchdown ? I find the filters list for the contacts, but nothing for the emails.
    Thanks
    Regards

    Reply
  4. Marc Sigrist

    Here is another reason to prefer categories over folders: When you store mails in different folders, you normally define special views to apply to those folders. Keeping the views accurate is an arcane, very user-unfriendly process in all Outlook versions. When you have only one (or a few) folders, that’s still manageable. However, when you have many folders, it is almost impossible to ensure that they keep the view(s) you want correctly applied. There are lots of issues, and I do not have enough space here to go into detail… just try to stick with as few folders as possible if you care about views.

    Reply
  5. D Levin

    Michael,
    I’ve been applying Categories to my Contacts in Outlook 2016 and recently realized that the Categories don’t carry over from one laptop to another, or to the Outlook.com online access. They seem to be device specific and don’t sync… which defeats the purpose of using Outlook across multiple devices for easy access.

    Have you experienced this challenge or discovered a solution? Do email categories sync across devices?
    Here’s a link to a similar question on Microsoft’s site:
    (http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/office/forum/office_2013_release-outlook/outlook-2013-do-categories-sync-between-computers/4dbb3323-9dbb-4831-a3aa-d66e838dfb05?auth=1)

    Thanks for your help.

    Reply
    1. Craig

      @D Levin. If you have an Exchange Server in the back end, like Exchange Online ($4 pm) or Office 365 Business Essentials ($5 pm), categories will sync.
      My other answer is a ‘maybe soon’; Microsoft are transitioning Outlook.com to the same Office 365 web mail user interface. This may offer category support. Maybe.

      Good luck.

      Reply
      1. D Levin

        Thanks Craig. Currently I’m on Office 365 Home (~$9/mo?), which uses “Exchange ActiveSync” and syncs contacts across my multiple devices fairly accurately. It even syncs photos when I’ve added them to a contact. however, once outlook.com gets involved, all bets are off. “Groups” of contacts seem to sync properly with Outlook 2016, but “Categories” from Outlook 2016 contacts don’t sync at all.

        It’s amazing that a multi-billion dollar company like Microsoft can’t seem to figure out how these products should work, and can’t provide any guidance on Best Practices. I’ve spoken to tech support escalated to their research team, and still find many more questions than answers.
        David

        Reply
  6. Laurence

    Dear Michael,

    Thanks for your blog. I am a great supporter of the use of categories instead of folders for all the reasons you and others have cited. I am a partner in a small legal practice in Australia and file my work emails (through Exchange) by categories defined by file reference numbers and short descriptions or (for non-client items) by category names I have created. I also have equally as busy personal email accounts and use categories created by subject or project in those accounts.

    For both, I use saved advanced Outlook searches where the search for “contains” equals the category name, giving me instant access to every matter (for my legal work) and subject or project (for personal or non-client stuff) that is identical to that subject or project name. My results include emails in the Inbox, Sent and Drafts folders, but the whole email account (all folders) or other folders can be selected, so existing folder structures can be used or ignored. In other words, all the benefits of a dedicated folder but with much less decision-making and true one-click ease – and a much better chance of finding the right email.

    It works brilliantly, in my opinion. In these days of large capacity inboxes, there is no need to worry about a folder structure for saving space. The inbox can be treated as what it in fact is, a large searchable database. The same “hygiene ” rules apply for diligently deleting unwanted emails and moving old emails to archive, but the latter is made so much easier by using a category search to define what emails can now be archived into an archive folder that is set up at the end, rather than created at the beginning .

    The key is ease of categorisation, and I found rules and Outlook’s native functions to be poor and unwieldy. I turned to third-party software that worked with Outlook. I first used “Category Manager”, which worked well till recent equipment and Windows upgrades, and I now use “Categorize Plus” which works exceedingly well as an Add-in and sidebar, and was not expensive. I recommend it strongly but others can look around, and no doubt there may be other products.

    I understand the iPhone and other devices issue, but since I treat those devices as convenient readers and occasional responders, rather than as primary tools, I am happy to categorise emails later when I get to my primary email device (a laptop), and I don’t find a real need to search for items at the category level when I am away from it – but others may be different.

    I hope this helps spread the word about Categories, and I am looking forward to reading your Outlook books soon.

    Reply
  7. Tamara

    Hello,
    I’ve been categorizing emails for a long while now and find it more convenient than having folders.
    However, I now have problem with archiving the emails. I do not want to archive any emails based on the date but rather based on the category. How can I do that?

    Thank you,
    Tamara

    Reply
    1. Michael Linenberger Post author

      Tamara, are you talking about Autoarchive? If so, no, Autoarchive only does it based on age. But if you don’t mind manual archive (dragging) then of course you can group by Category and drag mail from those groups to your archive folder(s). Michael

      Reply

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