Using IMAP Folders

Do you find taming your inbox challenging? I know I do. On some days, I receive 50 or more emails that require reading and/or a response. To keep up with the email volume, I’ve turned to using IMAP folders. IMAP folders are easy to use and are supported by both Plesk and cPanel powered servers. Here are some tips on using IMAP folders to help manage your email.


When you setup your account in your favorite email client (mine’s Thunderbird), you typically have an option to setup a POP3 or IMAP type of account. While both of these protocols get you your email, they differ in how they are managed and the features available.

The key difference is that POP3 downloads the email to your device, be it your tablet computer, desktop or smart phone. Typically, you can set the POP3 account to leave email on the server for a few days so you can get to your email from multiple locations.

IMAP, however, leaves email on the server. The system just fetches email when needed. If your computer were to crash, your email would still be on the server. By leaving the email on the server, there is another benefit. You can create IMAP folders to store your email. These folders will be available to any device you use. By using folders, you can manage your email work flow.

(Learn more about IMAP and POP3 protocols.)

IMAP Folder Strategy

While there are various “systems” available, such as the Inbox Zero method, I recommend you structure your IMAP folders as they make sense to you.

Monthly Folders

For me, I can typically remember about the time of year (such as the month) during which something was done. From traveling to a conference to buying software to negotiating contracts, I can usually guess the month for events within the past couple of years. So, one of the folder strategies I use is a monthly one. I name my folders “YYYYMM” with YYYY being the current year, e.g. 2011, and MM being the two digit code for the month, e.g. 06. Each month, I create a new folder, 201106, and store all of that month’s email in that folder. As it turns out, many IMAP programs will support sub-folders, so I store all of my 2011 emails in a 2011 folder.

With Thunderbirds great search tool, I can move to a folder and quickly find the emails I am after.

Special Folders

In addition to my monthly folders, I have three other folders:

  • Follow-up
  • Interesting
  • Hold

The follow-up folder is just as it sounds. This is stuff that I cannot do immediately but need to follow-up on in the next few days. The interesting folder is used for newsletters, forwards or other emails that I find interesting but are simply not important and can be deleted unread. The hold folder is typically used for important emails that may be related to a business transaction or discussion which spans a couple of months. Once the work is done, I then move the emails into their appropriate monthly archive.

Delete Delete Delete

I used to keep nearly every email sent to me, regardless of importance. By the end of the month, I would have more than 1000 emails in my monthly folders. Most of these emails were not needed. They were low value, simple notifications, or quick replies such as “yes” or “no” from staff or business contacts.

I know delete any email that does not have meaningful information or is not related to a business transaction. All newsletters, notices, password resets, and similar items get deleted. As a result, I typically end up with no more 200-400 emails per month that I keep.

Subscribing to IMAP Folders

One of the cool things about IMAP folders is they support subscriptions. A subscription to an IMAP folder allows you to view its contents. Using the subscribe functions, I can unsubscribe from older folders such as my 2009 archives. Unsubscribing does not delete the folders but at least in Thunderbird it means they are no longer included in search or displayed. This helps me keep the most recent and relevant emails in front of me.

Your Tricks?

I know there are more advanced email management platforms, but I like IMAP because it is free and works with nearly any email client. If you have email management tricks, please share. Trying to keep my inbox under control is challenging but at least with IMAP folders I can control the chaos.