Confirmed: Better to Not File E-mail

Dec 14, 2012

A CBS news technology writer, Dave Johnson, just confirmed what I have been teaching for six years. It’s better to not waste time filing into multiple topic name folders. He recommends using your mail system’s instant search tool instead. Here’s that article:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505143_162-57558144/for-better-productivity-stop-organizing-email/

Thanks Dave, good to see that trend is catching on!

However, I vehemently disagree with the second part of Dave’s recommendation where he says to just leave the e-mail in the inbox and search it from there. Please, don’t do that!

Why? Because it leads to big problems.

Don’t Leave Mail in the Inbox

The main problem is you can’t tell which of your e-mails you are done with, and which e-mail needs more attention—it becomes one big mess. Then, you spend hours per week rehashing your mail, constantly re-reading things in the hope to find those things that you think you still need to take action on.

Instead, I say use the inbox as a 24-hr Triage location, and get all mail out of there by the end of the day. Triage means you will make quick decisions about new mail, and move it on. How?

Inbox as an Emergency Room

Think of your Inbox as an emergency room waiting area (see my article on that). You’re looking for actions that you need to take—you are focused solely on that. Once you find an action in an e-mail, if you can’t or don’t need to do it now, immediately convert the e-mail to a properly prioritized MYN/1MTD task, and then move the old mail out of the inbox into a single folder (I call it the Processed Mail folder, but you can call it anything you want). Any mail that doesn’t need action move there immediately. Everything you don’t delete goes there. Try to empty your inbox each day.

Huge Control Boost

You’ll be amazed at how much control this gives you. You now can clearly see what mail needs more attention, and what doesn’t is instantly gone. Pending tasks are in your task system where you can manage them. It prevents dropped action requests and greatly lowers stress.

And since you are no longer multi-folder filing, you will get hours back each week that you would otherwise spend on parsing mail (and searching for it; multi-folders are very slow to search!).

Give it a try!

Michael

2 thoughts on “Confirmed: Better to Not File E-mail

  1. Jan Fischbach

    Hi Michael,

    I agree for personal emails. But teams need a common filing structure for all emails and files. Otherwise all team members must always ask the others for status or certain files (which will result in even more emails). The common filing structure is a set of folders for different tasks and projects. My recommendation for teams is to file, because not filing is more expensive than filing.

    Just think about it: Maybe you have 4 different systems: a ticketing system for client orders (e. g. JIRA), a personal inbox, a personal filing structure and a team folder. For one information you have to look in 4 systems. If you do not find it in one system you will look in the other 3. And if you found it, you are not sure, whether this information is the most current one. Now you start to ask your colleagues (of course by sending an email).

    From an individualistic point of view not filing personal emails is okay. But in a work environment you need to look to the team processes.

    Bye, Jan

    P. S.: Maybe German speaking visitors of your blog may follow my argumentation here:
    http://www.teamworkblog.de/2012/12/e-mails-mussen-doch-abgelegt-werden.html

    Reply
  2. Michael Linenberger Post author

    Jan, thanks!
    Point taken. If you are sharing an e-mail account across a team, and so some of your never see some of the mail when it first comes in, then yes, a search engine approach may not work since you do not know what you are looking for. In that case, scanning groups of mail filed by topic may be the only way. But as always, I’d recommend using Outlook categories to file by topic, and still use one folder to put all mail into–then you can group by topic in that one folder. Lot’s of benefits to doing that and you still get the folder-like search capability. There are other cases as well where topic filing may be needed–and categories applied in one folder works for them as well. Chapter 8 in the Outlook book is good reference for all that.
    Thanks again for your note!
    Michael

    Reply

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