Could someone talk to me about Email Archiving?

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve never archived email - and as such always end up with an archive within my inbox, which is essentially all the emails I’ve ever received broken down into folders/categories.

I think the main reason for this has been that I’ve never really understood how archiving works. I’ve always been under the impression that whenever I archive my mail, the categorisation/folder side of things just gets removed and everything gets thrown together in one big archive. As such, it would be a bit of a nightmare to find emails again should I ever need to access the archive.

Is that correct? Or is there a way of tailoring/configuring what your archive looks like? Aside from having a much tidier looking app, are there any other specific benefits to archiving?

Thanks a lot for your help!


Except from very specific cases (time sensitive projects for instance), you use search from there on.

The time you gain from just archiving instead of sorting through folders comes back tenfold when you just have to search for something when you really need it. Folders are for browsing, and I would venture you seldom browse your emails just for the heck of it. If you need something, you, well, know what it looks like, and it’s very easy to find through search. (That’s why we don’t have folders for the web :wink:) When you are done with something, you just archive it, instead of wondering where it should go, create new folders, drag the message… it’s so much overhead for no gain, really.

As an experiment, years ago, I started archiving, promising myself I would just test it for a while, and then if needed I could always sort back into folders.
I immediately changed my workflow and never looked back.

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I agree with @KillerWhale, use search.

Imagine walking into The British Library (remember libraries?) and trying to find a particular book by just walking through the stacks (i.e. the files and folders) and reading the titles on the bindings.

Files and folders don’t scale. People learned that more a hundred years before the Apple II went on sale. The Dewey Decimal System (1876) was a “search engine” that made finding books in large libraries possible.

I’ve been using search to retrieve email since the initial Gmail beta. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Nope! Is that something in my computer? Can you give me a refresher? :rofl:

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In my previous job, I saved all emails in to a specific project folder for finding - in my current role, it all gets saved in to the archive folder.

I’ve probably saved plenty of time by not filing (though that improved when I discoverd Postbox and it’s Quick Bar compared to trying to find my message now it’s in one folder (again, Postbox seems to have better search than Outlook - I haven’t tried tools like Devonthink).

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Thanks for the replies all - much appreciated!

So in terms of (any?) folders that you use for non-archived emails, is that just limited to a handful of folders that cover off general topics like tasks still to be carried out or levels of importance?

No folders. At all. Except for SaneLater and when I used to teach, I kept exams sent by email during the year in a separate folder as reference. But once the year was over, the emails went back into the Great Archive Ocean and the folders were deleted.

All email-related tasks go to OmniFocus and the mails are archived as well. The back links that Spark provides allow me to get back to the thread and keep the conversation going from there.

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As others have suggested, search is so good now that I rarely have a need for anything else other than a big archive pile.

For my jobby-job, I do keep folders for various committees, just because it can help narrow the search parameters. At least that’s the theory: in practice, I still just use search and it finds stuff no problem.

For my personal email, about the only important sorting I do besides SaneLater and SaneBlackHole is a folder called “Temp” where I filter things (at the server level using rules/filters/etc) like shipping notifications and other things that are only useful temporarily. Amazon’s deal of the day emails, Audible daily deals, TestFlight notifications, UPS/FedEx tracking info, notices that WordPress or its plugins were updated, etc. These are things that I do want to see, but not in my Inbox, and they are only important for a short amount of time.

Fastmail lets me auto-delete those messages after 1/2/3/7/14/31/60/90/180/365 days. It’s a feature that I wish Gmail had, and might be enough to get me to switch some of my email newsletters and such to my Fastmail account.

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My only concern to the (good) recommendations against folders is the inability for search to see a course of a discussion thread by itself. Yes, I can search for “faculty senate” to see all emails associated with that term. What however if I need to see the chain of discussion associated with Senate Bill 403, recognizing that not everyone always puts that term anywhere in their email.

I therefore questions whether project-related email discussions are not an exception the proves the rule (as a roommate once would say). Putting email messages for such cases into folders has advantages while the project is active. Why throw the folder back into the general laundry bin once it is all done? Why not archive those emails as their own folder?


If something really has lasting importance, I believe the last place you want to have it in is in your email client. Any relevant information I encounter in email gets lifted and put where it belongs, and if it’s a critical email thread to keep for reference, I’m going to PDF it and archive long lasting deep links to it. Generally speaking, the last case happens maybe 3-4 times a year tops.

I should have expected that SaneBox has an option for this already. You can learn more about it here:

Have SaneBox automatically archive or trash non-Inbox emails for you

Non-Sponsored Endorsement: I’ve been using SaneBox for several years now (at least 2012!), probably after hearing about them on MPU. I literally would never consider using email without SaneBox again, and I hope they never realize this and price it accordingly :smiley:

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I think the search vs. folder argument will never be solved.

In defense of folders and the library analog, if I walk into a library, I can go to the business section and not be distracted with anything other than business books.

With folders, I can keep communications permanently filed by client. I don’t have to think any compose just the right search query to find something. If I don’t craft the right search query, which gets harder the larger the archive, them the information is lost.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, “if you can’t find the information, it is no different than if it doesn’t exist”.

I like having no mental energy/overhead to finding information. When I need something urgently, I prefer jumping right to a folder than having to figure out how to search for it when I am already under pressure to have the info ASAP.

To the original question: I use an email backup app that converts everything pdf’s and duplicates the folder structure to a separate archive/backup directory. File attachments are also copied appropriately.

This gives me a permanent archive that is not tied to any email format and as just a bunch of folders I can store it local, offline, in the cloud, or anywhere I want.

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I don’t archive emails. If I have a message I need to keep I save it as a pdf and it goes into my document filing system. My email stays uncluttered and only has currently active projects. Backup and restore is easier since Each message is a separate file. It also puts everything in one organization scheme. As example, if I receive one receipt via email and another on paper that I scan, shouldn’t the two be in the same place? Why would I keep one in an email system and the other elsewhere if they are related?

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I do not use iMap mail so all my mail comes down to my machine and into my inbox. From there I will archive, by moving, messages into folders for specific areas. Every month I take all the emails that are 1 year old out of all those separate folders and put them into a separate DEVONThink database by year. I can search that DT database to find any specific message easily. So I get the short term advantage of limiting whre I have to look for messages and the long term advantage of a robust search via DT. Plus my email client isn’t bogged down and I never leve mail on a server so never have any access problems if the net goes down.