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Am I wasting my time organizing e-mail?
January 16, 2012 8:25 AM   Subscribe


 
Via Marginal Revolution, I should have said.
posted by escabeche at 8:26 AM on January 16, 2012


It's a waste of time to even delete emails, never mind "organizing" them.
posted by smcameron at 8:38 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the answer is "yes".

With the ability to quickly search for names/key words/etc. Is there really any point in spending ANY time organizing them?
posted by HuronBob at 8:40 AM on January 16, 2012


I save all my email and a lot of it is auto-tagged. I look up old mails fairly frequently and the times I do I really need it. So...no, I'm not wasting time organizing my email for at least two reasons.
posted by DU at 8:40 AM on January 16, 2012


The only email specific detail is organizing by 'thread', versus ''message'. The rest is what we all want for the generic file/filing system:

- Keep hierarchical folders around. They don't put any serious roadblocks up, and removing them extensively pisses off many people who have come to rely on them.

- Take tagging seriously. Make it easy to tag items (drag-and-drop, or a single click), and easy to use tags when searching for individual items or creating views.

i.e. BeOS was right all along.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:42 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


If I lose a particular email, I just assume it wasn't that important. Most of them aren't.
posted by rhymer at 8:43 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's psychological. There's a screen. It has things on it. I can get more done - with a screen or a real desk-top - if I have only a handful of things to do (preferably one thing, but I don't get to choose) sitting in front of me. Note: I'm very ADHD and fond of the precepts of GTD.

The chief purpose of organizing my e-mail is to get it the heck out of my inbox and onto a to-do list without having to delete things I will want later for reference purposes. An empty in-box makes it a heck of a lot easier to deal with the things that pop up without putting a psychic load on my capacity to deal or my tendency to get distracted.

Tagging doesn't work for me because I have to remember my tags :) A hierarchical folder list (we use Google Apps) is just the same thing as tags, except my list is organized in a way that makes sense to me.
posted by Peach at 8:46 AM on January 16, 2012 [11 favorites]


This was a very interesting study, thanks. However, this:
How might we impose higher-level intrinsic organization on email? One possibility is to re-organize the inbox according to ‘semantic topics’. One could use clustering techniques from machine learning to organize the inbox into ‘superthreads’ by combining multiple threads with overlapping topics
I would personally not like at all. But that's because I usually am searching my email by person, rather than topic. Also, I don't use gmail, so maybe the threads there are more helpful, but the new "conversation view" in Apple's Mail client is supremely awful.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:50 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The chief purpose of organizing my e-mail is to get it the heck out of my inbox and onto a to-do list without having to delete things I will want later for reference purposes.

I came here and found Peach had already written my reply.

Thanks, Peach! You're a...err...umm. Gotta go, meeting.
posted by eriko at 8:52 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


With the ability to quickly search for names/key words/etc. Is there really any point in spending ANY time organizing them?

This is actually pretty timely. I just had to abandon my "one inbox to rule them all" approach after reaching 16,098 messages which seemed to cause significant slowdowns for Apple Mail. New messages would take 2-3 minutes to appear after clicking them. Maybe there's a server component to this, I'm not sure, but the technical implementations of both the IMAP server and clients needs to be top notch.
posted by odinsdream at 8:54 AM on January 16, 2012


About 12 years ago, I took a promotion that resulted, among other increases in responsibility, about a ten-fold increase in email. Before that time, I had the habit of very fine granularity on my email subfolders, cleaning out my in-box, etc. But when I was promoted, it was just no longer necessary; I would have had to become a part-time archivist just to deal with my communications.

At a global leadership meeting one month, I asked my peers how they handled the email load. I got responses that ranged from "I don't! I have over 2000 unread emails in my Inbox!" to very detailed processing habits that would have made a librarian envious, and undoubtedly took an extraordinary amount of time for the person in question. But the best advice I got was from one colleague who was my counterpart for another region. Three key tips:

1. Good email handling starts with good task and authority delegation to begin with. If you delegate well, people don't feel the need to CC you on every little missive that can be handled by your team. Empower your folks to take over the tasks in such a way that they can take over the communications threads related to those tasks and you don't have to be included in all the back and forth. Aggressively and proactively withdraw from being copied on communications which don't require you. It's liberating for you and empowering for your team when they realize you don't need to be looking over their shoulder as they're discussing an issue over which they have authority.

2. Keep emails to one screen or less of text, of possible, and encourage others to do likewise. If you're working on a long document, that's different. But having a 3-page email should be a rarity. The less unnecessary text you distribute, the less will come back to you. Emails should strive to deal with one or two issues at a time to make them simple. If there are subtleties that need to be discussed or worked out in long detail, pick up the phone or schedule a meeting (virtual or in-person). Email isn't a great place to have a long, drawn-out discussion with multiple participants and trying to do it just turns you into a novelist, instead of a regional manager..

3. Don't worry about managing an email archive or working subfolders for all of your emails. If you have a key project that requires all emails be managed, create a folder for it, of course. But keep in mind that your email client's Search function is far more powerful at finding emails sent and received than you ever will be at devising an email folder tree. Just make sure you get in a habit of using and encouraging descriptive subject lines or keywords/phrases inside the body of the email so they can be found on a Search.

After a year of implementing these suggestions, I'd found that email had become much more manageable than before.
posted by darkstar at 8:54 AM on January 16, 2012 [20 favorites]


- Take tagging seriously. Make it easy to tag items (drag-and-drop, or a single click), and easy to use tags when searching for individual items or creating views.

But in the study they found that people were generally resistant to using tags for email management. Perhaps tagging as a strategy only appeals to a small subset of email users? (see Peach's comment, for example)
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:54 AM on January 16, 2012


keep in mind that your email client's Search function is far more powerful at finding emails sent and received than you ever will be at devising an email folder tree

Clearly his/her employer does not use Novell Groupwise.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:04 AM on January 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


If you're using Outlook for email at work, you've probably noticed that the search functionality is painfully slow. Xobni (inbox spelled backwards) is a nice freeware utility that makes a drastic improvement to search functionality. It's almost as fast as gmail.
posted by diogenes at 9:21 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Darkstar wrote

Just make sure you get in a habit of using and encouraging descriptive subject lines or keywords/phrases inside the body of the email so they can be found on a Search.


THIS. OMG THIS.

And MAKE SURE teams don't reply to the message Client #643 deliverables with the body text "....did anyone see jon's baby photos? they were so good!" (cue derail that makes indexing a nightmare).

(the number of people who don't know how to use subject headers drives me NUTS)
posted by lalochezia at 9:29 AM on January 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


keep in mind that your email client's Search function is far more powerful at finding emails sent and received than you ever will be at devising an email folder tree

Clearly his/her employer does not use Novell Groupwise.


Good God, man. My employer is still using Lotus Notes. LOTUS NOTES! OH THE HUMANITY!
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:30 AM on January 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


Shortly after I began my current job, we switched email programs from Lotus Notes to MS Outlook. I took this opportunity to create a workflow that was simple yet effective. It involved flags and search folders. It boiled down to leaving everything in the inbox and tagging things, filing important stuff, and leaving the rest to auto-archive. And it worked, very well.

Then, some months ago, I fell behind. In the past I had always caught up (I hate not being on top of things), but this time I knew I never would. So eventually, defeated, I resigned myself to being forever left behind.

I used to always be the one who could pull out an email from months ago in seconds flat. My organisational system was second to none. But when things are flying in faster than you can shovel them out... no system, however well thought-out, can handle that.

But then a strange realisation came over me. People had stopped asking me to find things for them. When I could no longer provide a quick response, people stopped bothering me so much. Emails answered themselves. Problems solved themselves. Contrary to popular belief, ignoring things actually did make them go away.

So, much though I hate to admit it: yes, you probably are wasting your time.
posted by Acey at 9:31 AM on January 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


Wouldn't mind being able to merge my bookmarks and my email in one fat searchable thing.
posted by Devonian at 9:49 AM on January 16, 2012


If I lose a particular email, I just assume it wasn't that important. Most of them aren't.

Actually, it's my experience that if you've lost an email, it's likely to be an important one. The ones that you can find easily are the ones that you don't need.

Outlook is the work system that I use. Its search is barely functional, but that's not saying much. It also archives email automatically whether I want it to or not, which makes older email even harder to find.

I do notice that I have far more email (both home and work) -- and it's true that much of it is useless or trivial -- than I did 5 or 10 years ago. Part of this is because I wanted to use home email as a sort of daily news push system so that I spend less time on news websites (or that was the intent, anyway). It is almost a full-time job to manage it all, which is why most people don't bother to try anymore.
posted by blucevalo at 10:03 AM on January 16, 2012


The ones that you can find easily are the ones that you don't need.

Say you're equally likely to lose important e-mails and unimportant e-mails. Then because most e-mails are unimportant, most lost e-mails will be unimportant. You just don't remember when you lose the unimportant e-mails.

(And if you doubt that most of your e-mails are unimportant, just see what comes in over the course of the next 24 hours.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:27 AM on January 16, 2012


I've been running a PBEM roleplaying game for ten and a half years now. I started out using Eudora and had a massive system of folders that meant I could find anything. Eudora has now not just been dropped by the folks making it, it won't even work any more in the current version of Mac OS.

I uploaded it all into Gmail (IMAP is my friend) and archived it under three labels: one for the play list, one for the OOC chatter list, and one for emails directly to the GM address. There's also a superlabel for all game mail. I still have to find stuff, but searching in Gmail under the general labels has been just fine. The granular labeling I relied on in Eudora wasn't necessary after all.
posted by immlass at 10:38 AM on January 16, 2012


Acey's story reminds me of a famous computer legend, IIRC I read it in Ted Nelson's "Computer Lib." Back in the 1960s, TWA was considering a major upgrade to its mainframes. The system was bogged down collating data and printing reports. It seemed like every executive wanted a big printed report on his desk, the more inches thick, the better. Big reports were seen as a symbol of status. But the programmers questioned the need for all these reports.

So they had an idea. They would announce that ALL report printing was suspended for 60 days, due to programming upgrades. Unsurprisingly, very few executives complained. If they got a call from an exec who yelled at them and demanded they provide the report, they would print it, and put him on a list of people who actually USED the reports. Within a month, they figured out who really needed reports, which was some astonishingly low number like 10% of all reports printed. The upgrade was declared unnecessary.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:47 AM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Everything Darkstar said, plus:

4. If your subject line is simply the word "Question", expect your email to be ignored. It deserves to be. If you can't be bothered to frame the question I can't be bothered to help you.

5. Getting people to stop top-posting is harder than keeping a dog from getting into the garbage can. When I rule the world, email programs will not automatically include text on a reply, you'll have to jump through hoops to quote relevant text via an interface that encourages you to insert the minimum amount at the appropriate point.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:51 AM on January 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I mostly don't file, but my organisation has a limit on email storage, 2 GB I think, so I've got a separate email folder on my hard drive. Wch is fine except when I'm logged on elsewhere and need emails from those folders. Our IT is outsourced to Capita and this is apparently savig them money ... can't imagine it's much, and unlikely to be worth the many cries around the office of "OFFS! I can't send until I delete something!".
posted by paduasoy at 10:52 AM on January 16, 2012


Oh, more relevantly, when someone replies to an old subject as a way of getting a new message to me (rather than typing my email address or getting it from contacts), and furthermore they top-post, leaving the old material in the message, that means that message is going to come up in the wrong search. And when they don't even change the subject line I want to hurt them real bad. Being lazy in your communications with someone basically says "I consider my time valuable, but not yours."
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:57 AM on January 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Seconding Gorge_Spiggott.
posted by Wild_Eep at 11:03 AM on January 16, 2012


Some of us have jobs that get us important emails from people, including from outside our immediate team, who are not as email savvy as ourselves. Some people just send in scanned documents with "img.jpg" in the Subject field, and "please see attachment" in the body of the email. Try searching for that needle in the haystack. A lot of these people, in normal text emails, do not bother adding a subject and have spelling mistaktes in the body of the email. Some of them refer to a telephonic conversation without quoting it or stating the issue, and simply convey a new thing that is related to the old thing. You know what this means? Hardly any keywords to search for. You can't go around telling people "I am not going to do anything about this $IMPORTANT_WORK_STUFF because I didn't get a properly formatted email". Not if you want to keep your job.

I could go on and on, but there really are people for whom some sort of folder/tagging organization is necessary, especially on work emails.

My workflow is fairly straightforward, I have always kept my inbox as a "to do" list of sorts. If it is in my inbox, it needs some action. When the action is taken, the email gets moved to either an unsorted archive folder, or a current project folder. I got to know much later that this was supposed to be a lifehack of some sort.
posted by vidur at 11:07 AM on January 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


George_Spiggott: my students do this, and I always tense up for a moment when they do, because it means that it looks to me like they're e-mailing about some long-ago assignment, and usually when they do this it's to complain about their grade, which is the least pleasant part of my job.

Also, when I was a grad student I'd get e-mails where I could see the student had me in their contacts as "Math TA". Great to see you don't know my name. Unfortunately I can't have all my students as "Student" in my contacts, because I have more than one student.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:09 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good God, man. My employer is still using Lotus Notes. LOTUS NOTES! OH THE HUMANITY!

Mine too. It is a BEAST.
posted by sweetkid at 11:11 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Full-text instant search changes everything. When the Web first started, we all assumed that a catalog like Yahoo!'s was going to be the way everything was found. Once we got Google we realized that organization is for when you don't have instant search. Or because you just want to browse, but who browses their inbox archive other than just for nostalgia? If I had a servant who could instantly find me any document I needed from my filing cabinet, I wouldn't organize it either.
posted by glhaynes at 11:22 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


This confirms my expectations. I came into my first IT job and immediately built a hundred filters and folders to sort my email. Which is great if I leave for a month and need to prioritize reading when I get back, but I have never, ever gone through the folders to find something. That's what search is for.

The only meaningful filter I've built is the one that distinguishes mail addressed to me from mail sent to lists. Even that fails to be useful as soon as I've opened the mail.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:36 AM on January 16, 2012


Everything is based on the quality of the search. I moved from Novell to Outlook. Yeah, that search blows and I can't load to another mailbox due to FERPA so I am stuck. Any solutions on how to become godly on Outlook?
posted by jadepearl at 11:41 AM on January 16, 2012


I could go on and on, but there really are people for whom some sort of folder/tagging organization is necessary, especially on work emails.

One alternative is to simply forward the problem email to yourself and add the required description in the body or subject line. That way not only can you now find the email in a text search - but you can see, by the fact the email is from yourself, that this was indeed the important message that you took pains to mark up for retrieval.
posted by rongorongo at 11:51 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


madcaptenor, I'm pretty sure undergraduates are constitutionally incapable of writing properly formatted emails.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 11:54 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


One Inbox, one Sent Mail folder, Xobni for search. Received emails that are exceptionally vague in the subject line and details are replied to, CC me, with a new subject line and more searchable information in the body. My calendar, not email, is for to-do, priority, etc management.

I already have an extra level of complexity because about half of my email work has to be tracked and cased in CRM. I don't have an extra 2 hours a day to fiddle with giant, difficult-to-search folder hierarchies.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:36 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Single Link Academic Paper: SLAP
posted by Joe Chip at 1:14 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


madcaptenor, I'm pretty sure undergraduates are constitutionally incapable of writing properly formatted emails.

but why? I would like to think I did not have this problem when I was an undergrad. Fortunately, I don't have the old e-mails I sent, so I can keep believing this.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:24 PM on January 16, 2012


Set up a gmail account (or other alternative with unlimited storage capacity) and then automatically forward/bcc everything that goes in or out of your main account(s) to it. Now it doesn't matter what goes on with your server, your .pst file or whatever. You're free to do whatever you want without worrying about losing something critical.
posted by carmicha at 1:27 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Single Link Academic Paper: SLAP
Yeah. And that's why they make us do a REVIEW of literature when we write a dissertation, not a couple of relevant studies. This one (now that I've had a chance to glance at it) raises interesting ideas, that's about all.
posted by Peach at 1:41 PM on January 16, 2012


Set up a gmail account (or other alternative with unlimited storage capacity) and then automatically forward/bcc everything that goes in or out of your main account(s) to it. Now it doesn't matter what goes on with your server, your .pst file or whatever. You're free to do whatever you want without worrying about losing something critical.

Please be sure this is allowed if you do this for your corporate emails. I've worked places that doing this would've been cause for immediate termination.
posted by winna at 1:51 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


but why? I would like to think I did not have this problem when I was an undergrad. Fortunately, I don't have the old e-mails I sent, so I can keep believing this.

Well coincidentally I have a grad student who is working on a project related to this, and so far what it looks like is that basically nobody has ever taught them how to do this before. Teenagers in general don't use email that frequently (compared to texting), so for many of them, college is the first place where people are demanding frequent email usage, and where there are also specific norms about correct email form. Unfortunately, compared to the olden days when they taught us how to write business letters, it doesn't look like high schools give any/much instruction on email as a correspondence genre.


I was an undergrad in the days before my small private university had campus-wide email, so we just hung around professors' office to ask our dumb questions./oldperson
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:01 PM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was an undergrad in the days before my small private university had campus-wide email, so we just hung around professors' office to ask our dumb questions./oldperson

When I was a grad student I had a good sense of which professors answered their e-mail and which didn't. And although I didn't collect any data, I noticed that the professors who were bad at answering their e-mails seemed to have more people come to office hours.

(But now I'm good at answering e-mail and have crowded office hours. But I teach big classes.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:59 PM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Inbox + Archive + the awesomeness that is Postbox. (search for it. Its the best email client there is). I've tens of thousands of emails and can always find what I need.
posted by seanyboy at 2:47 AM on January 17, 2012


Seconding what Peach said above. Once the inbox is empty, I find it's a lot easier to turn my attention to action items on a todo list.

As for trying to use the inbox as a todo list - forwarding items back to yourself, etc... unlike an inbox, a todo list is built for managing todos, including the ability to add metadata, so seems like the more effective tool. Much the same way managing one's appointments is better done in a calendar app than in the inbox. (Or managing contacts in an address book rather than the inbox.. etc.)

FWIW a piece I wrote awhile back on email and todo management is downloadable (free) from in the Kindle store and in the iBookstore.
posted by mark7570 at 6:46 AM on January 17, 2012


Here is how I do it:

1. Use Gmail. Turn off Priority Inbox
2. Multiple Inboxes
3. These three labels: needs action, hold, waiting
4. One multiple inbox view for each label
5. When I send someone a request for something, I copy myself, then drag the email to Waiting
6. If it requires me to do something, it goes to Needs Action
7. If it is something I need to hold onto like a hotel reservation, it goes to hold.
8. Everything else gets deleted or archived.
9. Search does the heavy lifting
10. Every Friday, I follow up with the Waiting email people to see what is up.

Now, when I fire up my email, I can see inbox and my 3 labels, in order of priority (Needs Action, Waiting, and Hold. Stuff does not fall through the cracks, and I don't bother with any more labels than the bare minimum I need.
posted by 4ster at 9:32 AM on January 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


I came back here cause earlier today I troubleshooted someone's email and the problem was his total number of folders was more than his mail client could handle. Fucking guy had a folder for each unit of some large body he's auditing. Extreme outliers...
posted by yoHighness at 5:00 PM on January 18, 2012


Hello 20.5GB Exchange mailbox!
posted by yoHighness at 5:02 PM on January 18, 2012


Hello 20.5GB Exchange mailbox!

I remember supporting a client whose exchange server kept dying. Turned out their CEO somehow managed to receive at least 2GB of mail per week.
posted by odinsdream at 6:33 AM on January 19, 2012


2GB of mail per week.

Those Word attachments with embedded BMP files can really add up.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:08 AM on January 19, 2012


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