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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 November 15, 2019

How Do You Change a Habit (According to Psychology)

How Do You Change a Habit (According to Psychology)

Habits are hard to kill, and rightly so. They are a part and parcel of your personality traits and mold your character.

However, habits are not always something over-the-top and quirky enough to get noticed. Think of subtle habits like tapping fingers when you are nervous and humming songs while you drive. These are nothing but ingrained habits that you may not realize easily.

Just take a few minutes and think of something specific that you do all the time. You will notice how it has become a habit for you without any explicit realization. Everything you do on a daily basis starting with your morning routine, lunch preferences to exercise routines are all habits.

Habits mostly form from life experiences and certain observed behaviors, not all of them are healthy. Habitual smoking can be dangerous to your health. Similarly, a habit could also make you lose out on enjoying something to its best – like how some people just cannot stop swaying their bodies when delivering a speech.

Thus, there could be a few habits that you would want to change about yourself. But changing habits is not as easy as it seems, why?

What Makes It Hard To Change A Habit?

To want to change a particular habit means to change something very fundamental about your behavior.[1] Hence, it’s necessary to understand how habits actually form and why they are so difficult to actually get out of.

The Biology

Habits form in a place what we call the subconscious mind in our brain.[2]

Our brains have two modes of operation. The first one is an automatic pilot kind of system that is fast and works on reflexes often. It is what we call the subconscious part. This is the part that is associated with everything that comes naturally to you.

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The second mode is the conscious mode where every action and decision is well thought out and follows a controlled way of thinking.

A fine example to distinguish both would be to consider yourself learning to drive or play an instrument. For the first time you try learning, you think before every movement you make. But once you have got the hang of it, you might drive without applying much thought into it.

Both systems work together in our brains at all times. When a habit is formed, it moves from the conscious part to the subconscious making it difficult to control.

So, the key idea in deconstructing a habit is to go from the subconscious to the conscious.

Another thing you have to understand about habits is that they can be conscious or hidden.

Conscious habits are those that require active input from your side. For instance, if you stop setting your alarm in the morning, you will stop waking up at the same time.

Hidden habits, on the other hand, are habits that we do without realizing. These make up the majority of our habits and we wouldn’t even know them until someone pointed them out. So the first difficulty in breaking these habits is to actually identify them. As they are internalized, they need a lot of attention to detail for self-identification. That’s not all.

Habits can be physical, social, and mental, energy-based and even be particular to productivity. Understanding them is necessary to know why they are difficult to break and what can be done about them.

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The Psychology

Habits get engraved into our memories depending on the way we think, feel and act over a particular period of time. The procedural part of memory deals with habit formation and studies have observed that various types of conditioning of behavior could affect your habit formations.

Classical conditioning or pavlovian conditioning is when you start associating a memory with reality.[3] A dog that associates ringing bell to food will start salivating. The same external stimuli such as the sound of church bells can make a person want to pray.

Operant conditioning is when experience and the feelings associated with it form a habit.[4] By encouraging or discouraging an act, individuals could either make it a habit or stop doing it.

Observational learning is another way habits could take form. A child may start walking the same way their parent does.

What Can You Do To Change a Habit?

Sure, habits are hard to control but it is not impossible. With a few tips and hard-driven dedication, you can surely get over your nasty habits.

Here are some ways that make use of psychological findings to help you:

1. Identify Your Habits

As mentioned earlier, habits can be quite subtle and hidden from your view. You have to bring your subconscious habits to an aware state of mind. You could do it by self-observation or by asking your friends or family to point out the habit for your sake.

2. Find out the Impact of Your Habit

Every habit produces an effect – either physical or mental. Find out what exactly it is doing to you. Does it help you relieve stress or does it give you some pain relief?

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It could be anything simple. Sometimes biting your nails could be calming your nerves. Understanding the effect of a habit is necessary to control it.

3. Apply Logic

You don’t need to be force-fed with wisdom and advice to know what an unhealthy habit could do to you.

Late-night binge-watching just before an important presentation is not going to help you. Take a moment and apply your own wisdom and logic to control your seemingly nastily habits.

4. Choose an Alternative

As I said, every habit induces some feeling. So, it could be quite difficult to get over it unless you find something else that can replace it. It can be a simple non-harming new habit that you can cultivate to get over a bad habit.

Say you have the habit of banging your head hard when you are angry. That’s going to be bad for you. Instead, the next time you are angry, just take a deep breath and count to 10. Or maybe start imagining yourself on a luxury yacht. Just think of something that will work for you.

5. Remove Triggers

Get rid of items and situations that can trigger your bad habit.

Stay away from smoke breaks if you are trying to quit it. Remove all those candy bars from the fridge if you want to control your sweet cravings.

6. Visualize Change

Our brains can be trained to forget a habit if we start visualizing the change. Serious visualization is retained and helps as a motivator in breaking the habit loop.

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For instance, to replace your habit of waking up late, visualize yourself waking up early and enjoying the early morning jog every day. By continuing this, you would naturally feel better to wake up early and do your new hobby.

7. Avoid Negative Talks and Thinking

Just as how our brain is trained to accept a change in habit, continuous negative talk and thinking could hamper your efforts put into breaking a habit.

Believe you can get out of it and assert yourself the same.

Final Thoughts

Changing habits isn’t easy, so do not expect an overnight change!

Habits took a long time to form. It could take a while to completely break out of it. You will have to accept that sometimes you may falter in your efforts. Don’t let negativity seep in when it seems hard. Keep going at it slowly and steadily.

More About Changing Habits

Featured photo credit: Mel via unsplash.com

Reference

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