Tip: Want to be more productive? Don’t file your email

Accounting Software


a person checking emails on his phone

Custom searches, not folders, the best way to handle email.

If you file your emails into folders in your email program you’re wasting your time, according to a study by IBM Research. The 345-user study found that people who used the search function in their email program could find relevant emails as easily as those who had categorised each email into folders.

Finding emails by searches took on average 17 seconds, versus 58 seconds finding the emails by folder. The likelihood of success – that is, finding the intended email – was no greater when it had been filed in a folder.

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

The study’s findings have big implications for those accustomed to filing emails by folder. With today’s volumes of email, it can take 20 minutes or more a day to file important emails. Spread that across a sizeable company and employees are losing a lot of time carrying out a pointless exercise.

By mandating the use of custom searches and email filtering you can claw back at least an hour a week and raise your productivity.

Getting the most out of search

The ability to run custom searches are common among all email clients, but search king Google has expanded the practice with two concepts; labels and conversation threads. Google pitches labels as a smarter folder because you can apply more than one label to an email  to make it faster to find, particularly if you have filters set up to automatically label incoming emails. And as labels are applied to the email as it sits in the inbox there is no duplication by copying them to multiple folders, which reduces storage and complexity.

Interestingly, the study concluded that people resisted tagging emails, though it did not specify whether threading was a type of tagging.

Conversation threads are essentially another type of custom search. They group together emails that are part of a single conversation between a group of people.

Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail and other programs have since adopted conversation threading for email.

The IBM Research study was strongly in favour of conversational threads, finding that threading reduced reliance on folders, made it easier to see more messages and consequently reduced scrolling.

The study argued for “superthreading” – automatically grouping multiple conversations under a single topic or project.

It also was optimistic about the use of social information as a way to organise email though it had not included such techniques in its scope. Xobni and Microsoft Outlook (see the Outlook Social Connector) have features that find information based on personal profiles.

Why folder?

The study’s researchers wondered why people continued to use manual foldering when it was clearly less efficient.

They concluded that need to file emails in folders was not to make it easier to find those emails later – it was a reaction to being overwhelmed by email volume. “Users receiving many messages were more likely to create folders, possibly because this serves to rationalise their inbox, allowing them to better see their ‘todos’,” the study said.

Filing was essentially driven by task management and using the inbox as a task to-do list, which the study implied was not an efficient practice.

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