Is organizing email into folders a waste of time?

Recent research conducted by IBM Research [PDF] suggests that people who searched their inboxes found emails slightly faster than those who had filed them by folder. Email management is something I struggle with every day, so this study grabbed my attention. Even after reading it, I don’t know how to feel.

Many years ago I was meeting with a supervisor who wanted me to see an email she had received. “Just a minute,” she said, and opened up her email software. For the next few minutes, I watched as she scrolled through thousands of messages, looking for the one I needed to see. It was frustrating for both of us, and at that moment I swore I’d never be in that position. In the very first post I ever wrote for Unclutterer, I described my reasoning for never storing messages in my email software. But was that the right move?

This study looked at the behavior of 345 subjects. Noting that email “critically affects productivity,” the authors state that “…despite people’s reliance on email, fundamental aspects of its usage are still poorly understood.” They looked at people who simply use their email software’s search function to find what they’re after vs. those who set up folders by topic. The results, surprisingly, were in favor of the former:

“People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding.”

In other words, the time spent setting up folders did not improve retrieval. People instead found that they now had multiple inboxes to go through and worse, started using their email software as a to-do manager. That’s definitely a bad idea (calendars, project management programs, and to-do list are more effective).

At work, I receive an obscene amount of email. To combat this, I stated creating topic-specific folders. As of now, I’ve got nearly three dozen folders. Is that helpful? I’m too sure. On one hand, I know where everything is. On the other, I do spend a lot of time working through the various folders. Conversely, Erin reads messages and then files everything into a giant Archive folder that she then uses the search functionality in her email program to look for specific key words, senders, subject lines, dates, attachments, etc. when she needs to retrieve an email. She calls this the “bucket method.” (It all goes into a metaphorical bucket.) The only exception to this are emails about potential unitaskers, which she files in a Unitasker Ideas folder.

I ask you, readers, which method do you use in email? Folders? No folders? Simple search? Something else entirely? Share what you do and how effective you think your method is in the comments. Email is a beast that we all must battle daily, and so far I’ve not found the perfect weapon.

28 Comments for “Is organizing email into folders a waste of time?”

  1. posted by Sassy on

    I’m retired but I use a combo method: I have folders for my husband’s and my kids’ emails and several project files (“house” for remodeling, etc. emails); financial stuff (like confirmations of charitable donations, and tax related stuff; and “photos” as an archival back up of friends and family photos (too many have asked for any copies of photos we might have because no back up). Everything else not deleted ends up in an “archives” file that gets moved to a “year” file periodically — and I go through those to further delete when on hold or such. It works for me, especially the kids’, house and financial files as it narrows my search (it is amazing how many emails can discuss a project without actually mentioning words that would help the search function).

  2. posted by varun on

    Search > folders every single time, as long as you have effective search. If all you have is the terrible Lotus Notes or Outlook search then it’s hopeless. If you have super fast search like Gmail, then I don’t even bother archiving – I just search for what I look for and there you are.

  3. posted by Dorothy on

    When I worked my employer used Outlook. I created a folder at the end of the month for my Inbox and my Outbox and swept everything into those two folders for the month, leaving both my Inbox and Sent folders empty. It was easy to search one or two folders for a particular email when I was looking for a particular email: “Hmm, I think I got that email from Ted on narwhal tusks in either June or July.”

    Most of us, of course, keep WAY too many emails. An example is a string of 20 emails. If you need to keep the content at all, keep the last message in the string which has all the content; ax the other 19.

    I want to share my best tip for dealing with a full Inbox. If, say, you return from a three week vacation to two thousand unread messages sort them by subject. Read the MOST RECENT message in A string. If the issue is resolved, save the most recent message (if you really need it) and delete the rest.

  4. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    I use a combo of folders and searches. I have pretty general folder names and file emails into those folders. My search function works better/faster if I search within a folder so I can find things faster. There are certain emails (e.g. receipts) that I need to print out on a monthly basis so I just dump them all into the “receipts” folder. It’s easy to find them so I can print them at the end of the month.

    If I have a specific project, I dump all of the emails into a folder labelled with the topic name. Again, searching within that smaller folder is faster than searching through all of my email.

    I think when email was invented, the search function wasn’t very effective which was why people used folders. Now that searches are improving, they can be more efficient than folders.

  5. posted by Egirlrocks on

    How one retrieves saved info from email is subjective. I personally prefer folders vs. the search-one-big-group method. I use file folders to organize the little bit of paper I have, and so it is with electronic info. I purge all my electronic files annually, and that includes my email folders. For the things I know I’ll need later, I print to PDF and delete the email. I’m also good at deleting stuff from my inbox right away so that I’ve separated the wheat from the chaff before I put things in folders.

  6. posted by Matt Relstab on

    I use a combination of the two at work. I have folders for each client with subfolders for each project. In total this is in the hundreds of folders, not including internal emails. However I’ve also setup a folder that will search all mail. When I’ve misfiled something or just don’t know where it is I use the all folder search to find it using keywords.

  7. posted by J.D. on

    I only keep emails that may contain reference information for future use. I move most of these reference emails to an Archive folder. I have a repeating task in Omnifocus that prompts me to move the contents of the Archive folder to an offline archive folder every quarter in order to stay below my company’s Outlook storage threshold. I allow myself to maintain no more than 3 other reference folders for my top active projects. I move the contents of these folders to the offline archive folder after project completion. I can usually find any email I need by searching for sender or topic. There are exceptions to this, of course, but overall I find the entire storage and retrieval process to be much faster than when I kept 25+ folders. I realized that too many folders creates too many opportunities for decision and maintenance.

  8. posted by Truman Town on

    Gina Trapani suggests a “Trusted Trio”–three folders to which emails can be moved from the inbox. They are Follow-up, Hold, and Archive ( think To-Do, Waiting for, and Save). It keeps certain kinds of messages together and can be helpful if the first two are reviewed regularly. In addition, I have sometimes found it helpful to keep a folder for a task that typically has a number of email inputs. For example, I edit a newsletter for an organization I belong to. I keep a “Newsletter” folder in my email client. As items arrive, I move them into this folder, and they are in one place when I’m putting everything together. Otherwise, I agree that it’s not helpful to have an elaborate system for filing email.

  9. posted by Julie Bestry on

    As with anything in organizing, it has to be customized to the person. I keep a clean inbox, with rarely more than 10 items still in it at the end of the day (pending more thought or action). Each item gets deleted or archived, usually the day it arrives. I have many projects where information needs to be retrieved weeks, months or even years later, and my system works great — for me.

    I think hierarchically and relationally — keywords have no innate meaning to me unless I’m trying to guess someone else’s organizational system (like on Amazon or Google). So, I have Outlook folders arrayed by areas of my life (business operations, personal, boards of directorships, committees) and sub-folders (for clients, projects, etc.) underneath each. I’m never going to remember that the random prospect who contacted me once about her mother but never replied to follow-up was named “Josephine,” but if her email is in the “Prospect” folder and never got moved forward to the “Client” folder (and thus there’s no Josephine’s Mom folder), I will be able to find her much faster when she contacts me again (which she almost invariably will).

    Conversely, some of my (residential) clients have no need to maintain most of their email for professional reasons and can delete much after a week or two. The little that must be maintained can probably live in perhaps two folders, tax/financial-related and general, and search rather than hierarchy may work fine for them.

    Search works great if you’ve got an expectation that a search word is going to be a hit. But if your terms are fuzzy (auto, car, vehicle, Chevy; or Healthcare, Obamacare, insurance) and you’ve no idea what was in that long-ago email, a logical hierarchy may be more sensible.

    The rare times I’ve tried to use search, it can take me up to five minutes (or forever) to find what I want; going directly to my folder structure usually yields the email in under 30 seconds. But it all depends upon the user’s natural approach to retrieval.

  10. posted by Maya on

    At home I use more of the bucket method. I have two email addresses, one for personal use and one for bills/email lists, so that means two buckets dividing personal and not-personal emails. I think dividing into folders at home would definitely end up taking more time and be less efficient than using a bucket method. At work, though, I work on multiple projects, sometimes very similar to each other, and often with the same people, so organizing emails in folders by project name is the only way for me to cope. Many of my coworkers insist that every email must have the project name in the subject, but that can lead to hundreds of emails with either really long subject lines, or subject lines that don’t give a clue of the contents of the email. By using folders, at the end of the project I can save what is important for legal purposes and trash the rest, moving the folder into an archive.

  11. posted by Shawn L. on

    I’m currently using a service, Sanebox.com, that will examine your incoming mail, and sort it for you into a couple of boxes. You train it by moving mail out of your inbox into one of the folders it sorts to.

    It’s a paid service but no longer having to tinker with rules for sorting mail makes life a bit easier.

  12. posted by Alice B on

    While the ‘bucket’ might make searching easier, folders make keeping your to-do’s and priorities far clearer. I had elaborate rules in my Outlook to manage my email at work, because I could easily receive 1,000 a day, and most were things I did not need to read, but might need for reference. Also, emails pertaining to an account had to be archived in case a client disputed their bill (I had a client come back 18 months after their account was over to argue about their bill, and it was a good thing I kept everything).

    My Inbox was only for things that were actionable or urgent, otherwise it was filed. Yes, it may have taken me a few minutes to search for a specific message, but I rarely, if ever, missed an urgent deadline because something got buried.

  13. posted by David Floyd on

    All work email systems, especially Outlook, have “Kick Ass” search tools built in. No need for folders because you can filter by more than one criteria, e.g. From, Subject, Date, Category, etc. Even the search capabilities for free email services like Gmail are getting better all the time. Best of all, they are easy to use.

    I am required to keep the last 7-years of work emails and categorizing them in Outlook, then using the Outlook search tools, I have been able to locate the email(s) I need in seconds. Look Ma, no folders!

  14. posted by Lisa on

    I use Outlook at work and the folder method because I get lots of daily alert / informational emails and I don’t have to read each one. I have set up rules to move them automatically to their appropriate folder. Then it is very easy for me to look at the critical folders, scan the subject and take appropriate action and ignore the rest. Works for me…

  15. posted by Robin on

    I don’t think the study is very conclusive.
    a) Instead of comparing “searchers” and “folders” (which can be a very diverse group with very different foldering approaches), it might have been more useful to look at who is very effective in finding emails and how are they doing that? Folders/no-Folders? What kind of folders?
    b) Also, the actually more important question is who is more productive at work in general? Searching for emails should be only a very small part of your daily routine. How does the inbox structure impact things like: responding in a timely matter, missing deadlines, responding to the latest message in a thread etc.

  16. posted by MJ Ray on

    I use Thunderbird with add ons like conversations and filing and search assistants, so I file into folders which helps to get various overviews, but it has strong search tools that work quickly across folders and servers and offline storage.

  17. posted by Susan on

    I’m a freelancer, and I have folders for all of my clients. Messages from them get sent to the folders automatically (I use Thunderbird, which is a real workhorse). Messages that still require an action from me, I re-label as “unread”. As every folder shows the number of unread messages it contains and the folders with unread messages in them are bolded, I can see at a glance that I still have 2 things to do for Client A and 3 for Client C and so on. Messages stay in the client folder until I invoice that specific client, then I move the whole bunch at once to a “work done” folder with client-specific subfolders.

    This system works well for me — bold folders with numbers mean there is still work do be done, and folders with messages mean I still have to invoice for something. This way, nothing slips through the cracks.

    I still use Thunderbird’s search function when looking for things, but to me, that is a separate function. Folders can help with searches in that in Thunderbird, you can filter the contents of a folder on individual terms, so that you see only the messages in that folder that contain that term, which narrows things down more quickly than a general search.

  18. posted by P J Ranson on

    As others have mentioned search functions on Email Clients are very useful, particularly if you’re searching a term, with a wildcard, and you search through subfolders… I can pinpoint any mail in less than 10 seconds, assuming I know where it’s orginated (business wise).

    I subscribe to the inbox zero / GTD methodology and utilise it’s principles to great effect. Having an empty inbox enables focus and the ability to be able to work productively with minimal distraction and no psychological ‘noise’.

    In order to achieve this I use Folders for sure…

    Directly Hanging of the INBOX there’s;
    – ! ACTION
    – ! WAITING
    – ! SOMEDAY/MAYBE

    Each folder is tagged to display total amount of contents as a number (as opposed to unread mails). (which enables me to see what needs to be addressed at a glance)

    Any mail that comes in that can’t be immediately dealt with and requires a response or some form of activity to reconcile it, is placed into the ! ACTION folder.

    Any mail that comes in that is something that I’m waiting for more information on in order to Reconcile it, goes into ! WAITING.

    Any mail that comes in that I ‘might’ do something with at somepoint – is placed into ! SOMEDAY/MAYBE.

    Any mail that isn’t covered by these is either then immediately deleted or archived as reference.

    Any mail that comes in that is reference that requires no Action, is placed into the various archive folders;

    – a PROJECTS Folder, with sub-folders dedicated to each business I have an ACTIVE & CURRENT Project/Job with
    – a GENERAL REFERENCE Folder, with subfolders specifically labelled for each business have worked with in the past, containing reference material for potential future business
    – a IMPORTANT Folder, with subfolders specifically labelled for each business, organised alphabetically (usually bills & Invoices) I need to keep on file

    I’ve never lost an email using this system.

    It works.

    Ask the thousands of people using GTD.

  19. posted by Debi on

    There is no One True Method – there is what works for you. Just as no two people file paperwork the same, no two people process emails the same. If there is an area where you struggle, look for tips to help that.

    I store my email in folders, but I also try to maximize the search function. In daily emails to my personal account, I automatically have Gmail sort messages into “Deals & Sales” and “Bac’n”, which is newsletters and other messages I subscribe to (so it’s not Spam). That way, my inbox is messages that generally need a response from me. Once I’ve dealt with an issue, it goes into a general category folder (common ones: volunteering, shopping receipts, tax documents, online payments, plans for a specific event) or deleted.

    For my work email, I fight very hard to prevent marketing messages or newsletters from landing there. I have a very wide variety of duties, so I have an intricate filing system for each role and each project within. My inbox is current items that need my attention.

  20. posted by Julia on

    I use a folder system based on the GTD method too – which has worked really well in conjunction with doing a weekly review, where I go back through those folders each week. The inbox stays empty, and my ACTION folder is where I go to find work I need to do.

    I also use a receipts folder like another commenter mentioned. When it’s time to pay the credit card bills, I go to my Receipts folder and for reconciling with the bill, then delete the reconciled receipts.

    I actually make notes for myself (in Mac’s Notes app) and send them to my email so I can file them this way for later work.

  21. posted by Rosemary Flannery on

    I go for the simpler is better option and use search for retrieving emails.

  22. posted by Brian on

    I tend to use the search function more, but folders are helpful when I can’t remember the right terms to search for. It also helps that my work is divided into discrete projects. I have like the “Johnson” file or the “Miller” file, so I can sort them that way, but I can also search for a particular email if I know what I’m looking for. If it’s more like “wasn’t there something about the car or something?” then it’s nice to be able to browse.

  23. posted by Tamera on

    As other people have mentioned, I too use a combination of the two methods. I’m very visually oriented, so keeping my In-box clean is necessary. I’m “Director of Front Desk Operations” which means I have to handle incoming packages from multiple sources with multiple destinations, tests (academia), mail, room reserves, etc., and a lot of mail needs to be kept for a short duration and then bye-bye. Throwing things into a folder just gets it out of the way. But I will use Search to find a specific one within those. Granted this means I have a lot of folders but I don’t find drag and drop that cumbersome. I label them by year and in March of the next year I either delete the folder or archive it. Though, to be honest, right now my In-box does need a deep cleaning. Luckily the Holidays are here and things will get VERY quiet and I can do that.

  24. posted by magnoliachica on

    I use to file my e-mails in folders, but now I just archive my emails and use search – except for two types of e-mails: those with photos, which I tag as “Photos” so that I can easily find them and those I make “To read/To watch” because they’re interesting things that people have sent (usually my mom) and I want to check them out at some point.

    I’m a doctoral student, which means a TON of saved PDF articles. I had been sorting them into folders, but then I started having articles that could go into more than one folder. I’m still looking for a program that can help me sort PDFs using tags, but for now, I’m putting all my articles in one folder and using my computer’s search function within my computer to find ones that match my criteria (author, keywords, etc). Soooo much easier.

  25. posted by Scott on

    SimplyFile. Best $50 I ever spent for filing email into folders. Program reads the email and suggests the matching folder.

  26. posted by Caspar on

    I’ve started using ActiveInbox and really like it. It’s a Chrome extension for Gmail and has a free trial. You can turn emails into tasks so you don’t need to use a separate task list and hide all your email except for that day’s tasks or those for a certain project. You mark emails either ‘to do’ or ‘waiting on’ (when you are waiting for a response) and then select a ‘due date’. You then archive the email and it reappears when it’s due. My job is 90% on email, so it works a treat for me.

  27. posted by Heather on

    Magnoliachica, there are some good citation managers that are designed for organizing pdfs with tags. I used the free version of Mendeley when I was working on a research project, and lots of people prefer Zotero, which is open-source. Some universities purchase EndNote, but I always found it unwieldy. These citation managers also integrate with Microsoft Word, which will come in very handy when you are writing and don’t want to waste time manually typing every citation.

  28. posted by omgwut on

    i use the folder system. i keep a documented record (hardcopy) of all emails i send out and receive that are important. it’s easier to do this if i organize it in folders than to have to use the search key and organize while searching. you can easily use the search key if the new folders are made under the ‘inbox’ tab, and the ‘inbox’ tab is highlighted when you do your search. it does not make locating emails any less harder.

    i wish people would think more.

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