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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

More by this author

Darren A. Smith

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

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Last Updated on January 27, 2022

5 Unexpected Places to Boost Your Productivity

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5 Unexpected Places to Boost Your Productivity

The environment of a typical office or a quiet library may sometimes lessen your productivity as the unchanging views fail to stimulate your senses and keep your brain running. If you are the kind that dislikes absolute silence or minimal noise when working, these unexpected places to work may boost your productivity level!

1. Coffee shops

Research has shown that an adequate amount of ambient noise stimulates your senses and keeps you alert. Where else better to find some chatter and clatter to boost your creative juices? Working in the coffee shop also guarantees something else: unlimited supplies of caffeine!

Caffeine wakes you up by fooling adenosine receptors and speeds transmitting activities up in your nerve cells.If you do decide to try this place out, make sure that your work computer is facing the coffee shop customers so you will be less likely to procrastinate or go to inappropriate sites because people are secretly watching you.

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If your workplace requires you to be in the office, try this website and/or phone app that provides you with sounds from coffee shops around the world. Want to work at a cafe in Paris? No problem, it’s just a button away.

2. Cafeterias

Similar to coffee shops, company cafeteria or food courts provide consistent noise and the smell of food. The aroma of food makes you look forward to your next break and should motivate you to complete your work.

The act of eating likewise keeps your brain alert and produces dopamine. But make sure only to snack and stay around 60% full so that each bite is rewarding and invigorating. Snacking every 90 minutes should keep your brain balanced enough to focus on the work at hand.

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3. Empty University Classrooms  

Whether or not you’re an university student, we have all been a student at some point in our lives. And when you’re in a classroom, your brain is primed to stay focused because you have been conditioned to concentrate in class. In comparison to your bedroom, where your brain is primed to relax, sleep and have fun, the environment of the classroom triggers your memory to stay alert (unless you never listened in class) and work.

If you do decide to try working in an empty university classroom, be sure to bring a studious friend. Once you see that your friend or coworker is working hard, you would feel guilty for procrastinate and be more competitive.

Ever heard of environmental context-dependent memory? Research has shown that environmental context influences the way we encode information. If you study in the same place you first learned the material, your chances of recalling the information are significantly increased. Use environmental cues to your advantage so you spend less time doing more work!

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4. Outdoors

Fresh air, sunlight, cool breeze. Talk about getting your vitamin Ds the natural way. A healthy body is crucial to being productive. If you have a porch, use it to maximize your productivity!

On a cool day, the crisp air is good for waking your brain up. If your work station is indoors and poorly ventilated, the build up of carbon dioxide will cause your brain to be less active, hence, less productive. Try to bring some work to a park nearby or an unsheltered town square where you are exposed to the sun. Fresh air will vitalize your brain and the warm sunlight will bring a smile to your face.

5. The Shower 

Many people experience their “Aha!” moments when they’re in the shower. Why is that? The hot water helps with circulation and improves blood flow to your brain, giving it more oxygen and nourishment to break down your work block.

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If you aren’t motivated to work or feeling bored, a good shower will not only open up your pores, but also give your brain a boost of energy. Keep a waterproof white board and markers in the washroom so you will never lose those wonderful ideas again!

Featured photo credit: Thomas Franke via unsplash.com

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