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.