Organize emails I spend more time thinking about email than any reasonably sane human should. From advanced Gmail settings to intricate tab training techniques, I’ve tried just about everything under the sun (and then some) to keep my inbox under control.
All right—so “nothing” might be a little misleading. I’ll still answer emails, as needed (and only with mild disgruntlement), and I’ll archive messages as I deal with them. But in terms of actual ongoing organization, I won’t devote any meaningful time or energy to marking my emails in any particular way or filing them away in any specific manner.
In other words, I’m embracing a deliberately disorganized inbox in the name of email efficiency. And counterintuitive as it may seem on the surface, there’s a reasonable argument that it might just be a sensible strategy for success—one that you, too, would be wise to adopt.
Let me explain.
THE EMAIL ORGANIZATION FALLACY
For years, the common logic with email has been that the more you organize it, the better off you’ll be. Google the phrase “how to organize email,” and you’ll find pages upon pages of results instructing you to come up with a full-fledged email organization framework—something that involves a carefully defined system of folders or labels and a certain amount of time set aside every day for meticulously marking, arranging, and fussing over your incoming messages.
Different mail clients have different mechanisms for managing such a feat, but the underlying idea is usually the same: It’s up to you to organize your emails as you go, lest you find yourself with a cluttered and (gasp!) disorganized inbox.
THE ENTIRE POINT OF GMAIL—THE REASON IT WAS CREATED IN THE FIRST PLACE—WAS TO SERVE AS A GOOGLE-LIKE SEARCH ENGINE FOR YOUR EMAIL.
That wasn’t always the case, of course. Back in the early days of email, searching an inbox was a downright painful experience. Especially if you had a sizable backlog of old messages—which were almost certainly stored locally on your own computer at that point—you’d type something into your mail client’s search box and then prepare to wait a good long while for the program to excavate what you needed (if it ever even did). Back then, filing messages away with a carefully thought-out organizational system was not only a time-saver; it was a necessity.But ever since Gmail came along and made email searching a near-instantaneous task, those sorts of systems have stuck around mostly as relics and legacy-level creature comforts. The entire point of Gmail—the reason it was created in the first place—was to serve as a Google-like search engine for your email and make it easy to find anything you needed without wasting time. And Gmail’s rivals have introduced their own Google-esque search to stay competitive.
But actual scientific research suggests that Gmail’s original strategy of archiving and searching was surprisingly sound. A group of IBM researchers observed the email habits of 345 people for a 2011 study, examining how they found older messages in their inboxes—and whether any time they’d invested in meticulous filing and organizing actually paid off. Their conclusion: “People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success.”
The researchers found that relying on folders for email organization both wastes time at the start, given the manual effort required to keep filing every email away, and is ultimately less effective than searching when it comes to later email retrieval.
A MIDDLE GROUND FOR INBOX ORGANIZATION
With all of this highly geeky knowledge in mind, here’s a good general rule to consider: If a method of inbox organization makes it easier for you to process or later find your emails without requiring any ongoing effort on your part, then it’s worth doing. If it gives you more work without any tangible gain, then it’s best to let go.
The key, I’ve found, is focusing on systems of organization that are largely automated—things you set up once and then empower to work for you instead of requiring you to do the work yourself. For instance, I have certain types of messages that are especially high priority and important to address in a timely manner. I use a Gmail filter to automatically place a special “VIP” label and a star onto any such messages as they arrive. That causes those emails to stand out visually in my inbox so they’ll grab my attention, and it also causes them to notify me on both my phone and my computer in a way that most regular emails don’t, thanks to some crafty configuration.
The key with both of these systems is that they’re methods of organization that serve a specific purpose and that don’t create any ongoing busy work for me. On a day-to-day basis, all I typically do is respond to what’s needed, archive what’s finished, and occasionally snooze something if I don’t have time to deal with it right away or if it won’t be relevant until later.
And when I need to find an email I’ve archived, no matter what it’s about or when it was sent, I simply use Gmail’s search system to track it down and turn it up. (The search operators on this page, especially from:, to:, and subject:, are well worth internalizing and putting to use.)
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