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The Reason Why You File Emails is Not What You Think

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 July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

More About Goals Setting

Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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