Ruthless Email: For Maximum Productivity, Search — Don’t Sort

by Annie

in email herding

The Never-Ending Nested Stack of InboxesContinuing our email cleanup challenge, today we’re going to look at the two main approaches to email management, why one kicks the other one’s ass, and how to implement the winning strategy successfully.

Two Approaches to Email Management

Email management — the process of storing emails and reaccessing them at a later date — can take one of two basic approaches.

First, there’s the preparatory approach. This strategy revolves around the stuff you do before you re-access those emails: filing and sorting emails into hierarchical folders. This strategy is best illustrated by the never-ending nested inboxes in the image above.

The other approach is called the opportunistic strategy. Here, the user doesn’t spend a great deal of time sorting and filing, but relies on searching and threading to find the email she’s looking for.

In a 2011 study conducted by IBM Research which looked at these two basic strategies, the researchers concluded that the approach actually saved more time. (Go ahead and download that PDF if you like, but be warned: it’s likely to be of interest only to email and productivity geeks like me.)

All that sorting and nesting and filing? Wasted time. Just click “archive” and then when you’re ready, search for the email — and you’ll end up saving time.

The Problem With Nested Email Folders

If you think about it, the results make sense — especially if you’ve ever looked at any busy service provider’s email client. I’ve seen a few lawyer’s offices, for example, who rely on a byzantine series of nested folders.

That approach feels sexy and all organized and shit, but in reality, once you’ve been in business for a few years, you’ve got an unmanageable, indecipherable mess. Worse still: if you assign file numbers to those folders. And then have subfolders under that file number folder.

It’s a Russian doll of incomprehensibility.

And how on God’s green earth can you ever hope to use this kind of system efficiently and quickly? I’ve seen many offices take this kind of approach, and what the front-line workers inevitably end up doing? Using search functions anyway.

Which begs the question: why are their supervisors making these poor people adhere to that insane folder hierarchy to begin with?

Making the Most of Email Search

Now this shift by itself helps a little but not enough. To truly reap the rewards of a search-based strategy, I recommend you implement minimal folder management.

What this means is that you have a handful of folders – five or so – and everything goes into one of those folders. You might have Inbox, Actionable, Waiting For, and Reference folders. Or Clients, Personal, Admin, and Archives.

Whatever makes sense for your business and the way you already work with email — that’s what you should go with.

Create those folders, then sort your mail into the most appropriate one.

Additionally, to make search faster and more efficient, you should manage your archived email effectively.

How long do you really need to maintain old emails? Even in highly-regulated fields, there’s a limit. Three years, seven years — whatever it might be, delete the emails older than that to speed up your search.

Also, look for old emails with attachments and heavily-HTML’d emails that you can safely delete. The smaller your archive, the faster the search will be.

Next, you’ll want to maintain your referenced email in a more permanent inbox. Email inboxes are a crappy way to archive important info. So move (copy) substantively-important emails into a different inbox — for example, Evernote or Notebook — then delete them from your email client.

A few more tips might help you adopt the opportunistic search-based approach:

  • Consider moving to Gmail. The amount of storage capacity in the free account, the ability to import other email addresses and send mail from those addresses, the multiple inbox capability, and most of all the efficiency of its search function make it one of the best (though not perfect) solutions for digipreneurs and couch warriors.
  • Create a throwaway email address for sign-ups. Commercial lists, other people’s lists, the email you use to enter internet sweepstakes — all these email uses compete for your attention with your business-related emails. An email address you use solely for those purposes cleans up your real inbox but still lets you reap the benefits of all those lists.
  • Download and process file attachments immediately, then move the accompanying message to another container.  File attachments can take up a substantial percentage of your inbox capacity. If the only utility in the message, other than the file, is to prove the date it was sent, then move the message off your inbox altogether to some other application (Evernote works well for me for this purpose).

In Search Of Inbox Zero?

Finally, give up the glorious dream of “inbox zero” (which was never about zero emails in your inbox, anyway). It’s a nice thought, but a little impractical in this day and age. When you do achieve it, sure it feels nice for awhile, but then what inevitably happens? It starts to fill back up – both emails and your brain’s involvement in same.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so, apparently, does the entire web.

By all means, use your minimal folders to reduce the size of the visible inbox as much as possible, but don’t make some arbitrary number or “zero” your goal.

The real goal is to create a system that works for you and allows you to process and find emails quickly. Don’t lose sight of that.

Search On, My Friends

What would you add? Do you use folders and want to argue for their superiority? Have at it in the comments!


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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Someone September 4, 2012 at 5:28 am

Ha, that folders graphic is just what my inbox used to look like. Search works just fine for me now.


Annie September 4, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Zoinks, Someone. That is a scary, scary thought. Though no scarier, I guess, than some of the lawyer’s inbox folders I’ve seen.


Sandi Amorim September 4, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Seriously, I love that you suggested we give up ‘inbox zero’. It’s an annoying, and fleeting stage that can not possibly last. Be gone I say, there are better goals to be had!

p.s. I love Gmail 🙂
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Clare Price September 4, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I have the minimal folder strategy and it works. I also make sure I delete anything older than 60 days but keep a backup just in case. I have one caution on the gmail though. Good for email management. Not so good for your brand if you use as your professional address because it can make you look like a hobbyist instead of a professional. Great post Annie.
Clare Price recently posted..The Community IS the Brand


Amina Melody September 7, 2012 at 7:36 pm

I’ve struggled with inbox overwhelm for ages. You right – whatever folder system I set up, it quickly gets overwhelmed or out dated. And I’ve never hunted through that folder system anyway – I always use search! Great article. Thanks for making this so obvious and clear.


Becky Blanton September 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm

I actually maxed out my Gmail account at one point, even with deleting trash and spam every day. I save EVERYTHING!! So this is excellent! I have 30 plus folders now….so it will take some time to pare them down to five, but the time I’ll ultimately save? Awesome. Thank you for some great tips!
Becky Blanton recently posted..Hello world!


Annie September 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm

You’re very welcome Becky! I have no doubt I’d have done the same long ago (maxed out the Gmail account, that is) if I hadn’t been scrupulous about cleaning out the archives from time to time, even before I caught on to the speed/size connection. And you’ve hit on a truth that often causes some stumbles: sometimes, you’ve got to spend a little extra time now in order to save a LOT of time later!


Linda Ursin September 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm

I use Gmail, ans I used to sort into folders. But I gave that up a year or so ago. I do however think I might be archiving stuff I should delete, and that I save things longer than necessary.
Linda Ursin recently posted..Weeds – 21 – Buttercup


Annie September 10, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Hey Linda – thanks for the comment. That’s VERY easy to do. It’s always better to save than delete if you’re on the fence, I think. You can always change your mind later that way – but once it’s gone from trash, it’s totally gone.


Sharon Hurley Hall September 20, 2012 at 10:50 pm

I use Gmail but your labeling system is definitely simpler than mine. Good tip, Annie.
Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..As A Freelance Writer, Should Quality Ever Come Second To Quantity?


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