As you probably know, I strongly recommend that you use a single folder for most of your Outlook email filing.
In my Outlook book (Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook Ed 5), and in my MYN-Outlook Video Course, and in the Outlook Inbox Ninja Video Course, I suggested two alternate single folder approaches: Using the predefined Archive folder (available in all Desktop Outlook versions since late 2016). Or using the Processed Mail folder (good for all versions of desktop Outlook); the Processed Mail folder is simply a custom Outlook folder that you create yourself.
I normally say you can adopt one or the other (but not both by the way), and that they are roughly equivalent in advantages. I do get questions from readers asking which is better, however, and there are some key differences.
So, what follows is a write up detailing the pros and cons. I’ll do it from the perspective of the Archive folder. By the way, all of this is explained in my video classes, especially the Outlook Inbox Ninja course, for example in Video 1.4 (but also study all the Quick Step videos in section 1 there, and study the new lesson 8.5).
What is the Archive Folder?
The Archive folder is a feature built into later copies of Outlook 2016 and in Outlook 2019. It is also built into the desktop Outlook that you get as part of Office 365 subscription. It’s a pre-defined server-based folder that shows up on the folders pane on the left side of your Outlook folder. And it has a corresponding Archive button on the Home tab that sends selected emails into that folder.
By the way, don’t get confused by this folder’s name. There are a number of folders that can be in the Outlook folders pane that have some version of the word “Archive” in their name. I sort the differences out in this article.
Archive Folder Pros
Backspace Key: One of my favorite things about the Archive folder is that, in Windows Desktop Outlook, its button is auto mapped to the Backspace key. So, when you are rapidly clearing your Inbox, you can simply alternate between the Delete key (for true deletion) and the Backspace key (for filing to Archive folder). Note that, for comparison, you can also create a Quick Steps shortcut key for filing into the Processed Mail folder, but it will be a multi-key combo, so not as convenient.
Already Created: In case you don’t know how to create folders in Outlook, one advantage is that the Archive folder is created for you. By comparison you have to manually create the Processed Mail folder; not hard, but some people don’t know how.
Prominent location of button on Home tab: This is nice, the Archive button is easy to find on the Home tab, and it’s located right next to the Delete button. It’s also displayed in the newer Simplified Ribbon. By comparison, the Quick Steps button that you can create for the Processed Mail folder will be slightly hidden in the Quick Steps list on the Home tab, and not necessarily displayed in the Simplified Ribbon.
Available on Outlook Online: Microsoft has also added the Archive button to Outlook Online (assuming you are using a relatively recent version of Exchange Server). By comparison, there is no way use your desktop Quick Steps within Outlook Online.
Archive Button is on all Outlook smartphone apps: if you are using Microsoft’s Outlook app on either iOS or Android, note that Microsoft has added an Archive button to those apps right at the top of the screen. In contrast, there is no way to use Quick Steps in those apps.
The Archive folder can be the target of Outlook rules or Quick Steps: This is a wash compared to the Processed Mail folder, but if you regularly create Quick Steps or Outlook Rules, the Archive folder can be a filing target for those tools.
Cons of the Archive Folder
The Archive name is deceiving: I don’t like the name “Archive” since it implies deep filing of mail that you never intend to look at again. Rather, in my teachings I recommend you put mail in your single folder even if you are going to read it more in the days ahead; that’s because I teach to use it as a place to you put initially triaged mail so you can quickly empty your inbox.
Archive button always marks the message as Read: The Archive button marks all mail you move as Read (unbolded). That’s not a good feature for my teachings, where I recommend you put mail there even if you are going to read it more in the days ahead. The unread designation is important in that case.
Button doesn’t allow customizing steps: related to the item above, there is no way to change or customize what the Archive button does. In contrast, if using Quick Steps for filing instead of the Archive button, you can do lots of customizing. Examples: NOT marking an email read if it needs more reading, or purposely marking an email as unread for READ LATER mail; also, adding a category to the email in the same click; and finally, auto-clearing flags on mail when it is filed. All of these are key advantages, and in fact they are the main reason I still use the Processed Mail folder instead of the Archive folder.
May not work with non-Microsoft Servers: if you are not using Exchange Server or Outlook.com, the Archive folder and Button may not work correctly.
Cannot change the destination folder: in early versions of the Archive button, you could map its filing location to other folders. Not so anymore if you are using Exchange or Outlook.com. That said, If you are using a POP or IMAP account such as Gmail, Yahoo, or iCloud, you CAN change the location of the Archive folder by selecting File > Mailbox Settings > Tools > Set Archive Folder.
Archive folder is stored on the server so no option of using it for True archiving: note that if you are using Exchange or Outlook.com the archive folder is always stored on your main mail server. So if you have restrictive mail storage limits, it will contribute to your overflowing storage. In contrast you CAN, if you like, store the Processed Mail folder on an off-server location, thus accomplishing True archiving (where server space is cleared).
Archive folder is positioned a bit low in the folder hierarchy: Another thing I don’t like about the Archive folder is it sits rather low in the folders pane. In contrast, when you create the Processed Mail folder you can place it immediately below the Inbox.
Depending on what priority you give each pro and con, I am sure you will pick your favorite of the two single-folder solutions. That said, I guess it’s telling that even though I’ve had access to the Archive folder for a few years, I still choose to use the Processed Mail folder. For my filing priorities, it comes out ahead of the Archive folder in the pros and cons analysis.