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The Reason Why You File Emails is Not What You Think

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The Reason Why You File Emails is Not What You Think

You spend 10% of your working week filing emails, according to research by IBM. That’s 4 hours. Really? Half a work day filing emails? When I read the research, I didn’t believe it either. But, as someone who has been providing time-management training for over 15 years, I’ve met learners who are really passionate about their filing. You probably know someone like that too. You’ll have seen their Outlook folders to the left of their inbox. Some are truly a work of art – 60 folders deep and 6 wide. Structures that have grown and morphed over time, like an ant’s nest burrowed into the soil. You can almost feel those people desperately trying to drag an email into a folder, but it just won’t fit. Another folder gets created. And the nest of tunnels grows.

The IBM research looked at what we do with emails. The researchers used terms like “refinding” to describe the process of looking for an email that we’ve read in the past and that we need to read again or act on. They observed over 85,000 refinding actions across 345 users. Their insights are incredible.

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There are 3 Types of Filer

The users were split into 3 groups when it came to filing: No Filers, Frequent Filers, and Spring Cleaning Filers. Which one are you?

Not Replying to Emails When We Should

37% of the emails the users opened should have been replied to but weren’t. We call this the “Email Ostrich”. Someone who opens emails, winces, and then closes them again. I bet you’ve never done that ;)

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Creating Folders to Understand What We Need to Do

We create folders because we think we want to put our emails away for safekeeping until we need them again. Research suggests that over 80% of the emails we file away are never looked at again. What we’re really engaging in is a “just in case” response. “Well, I might need to cover my butt on the XYZ project, so I’ll file this,” we say. The gurus’ answer? Get good at using advanced search, because you’ll always know something about the email you want to refind. You’ll remember who it’s from, a key word, the rough date – something that will help you to refind the email. Add to that the fact that most companies archive emails for 7 years, and you’ll see that there’s no danger of losing the email.

The reason we create folders to the left of our inbox is to understand the email-related tasks we need to do. It’s a little like walking through the forest with a machete, chopping at the undergrowth. As we chop away, putting emails in folders, we can see the way ahead, as if we’re clearing the shrubs and leaves away to see the path ahead. The underlying reason we do this is that we are using our inbox as our to-do list, and we believe that getting sight of that to-do list is essential if we are to make progress.

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But here’s the real rub…

We’ve created a wonderful structure of folders, wide and deep, which has grown with us as we have grown into our job. The most damning insight from the research is that those who file take as long as those who do not file to refind an email! This is because the folders were created as a means of clearing the inbox, not as a means of organizing them for refinding. Therefore, when the Frequent Filer looks for an email, they cannot follow a logical sequence to refind that email because there isn’t one. Additionally, their filing structure on their email system is different from the one on their hard drive, so they essentially have two filing cabinets being used. Each one has a different structure according to its format, i.e. one filing cabinet for emails and one for everything else. That adds up to a poorly structured filing system.

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So, What’s the Answer?

  1. Stop filing your emails immediately.
  2. Put all your folders, with their emails, into archive.
  3. Become good at using advanced search to find your emails in Outlook, Gmail, or Apple Mail.
  4. Advanced action: Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list. Create one each day for yourself. This time management template will help.

Featured photo credit: Jeremy Bishop via unsplash.com

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Darren A. Smith

Founder of Making Business Matter - Training Provider to the UK Grocery Industry

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