26,138 Emails in My Inbox (and I feel fine)

For many years I tried to file away emails using a variety of systems and found none of them effective.  The big problem for me was that I could never remember what folder I had filed something in, when filing things it was not clear cut where some thing belonged.  I wasted a lot of time filing emails and often had that feeling of guilt of a load of emails in my inbox that I need to file.

Since deciding to just leave everything in my Inbox about 7 years ago I have never looked back and this study(pdf) seems to vindicate my decision.  I must have saved days or weeks by not filing and I no longer waste energy trying to organize something that doesn’t need organizing.  If I want to find an email I use the Three S Technique(copyright that phrase; me):

  • Searching – I use Thunderbird 3 from Mozilla which has a reasonable search, there is also Google desktop search which can search emails.
  • Sorting – Usually I search for the person I know sent me an email and then sort by date or subject, sometimes I search for a keyword in the subject and sort by sender.
  • Scrolling – I could also add Scan here for another S.  I often just sort by date and scan my eyes over as I scroll through emails and locate what I want.

The other issue is how I deal with incoming emails, filtering them and determining what to action first.  My prime technique is  Scrolling and Scanning, I tend to scan for Senders primary and Subject second and look for anything that might be urgent and deal with those first.  Then as I go through other mails, if there is something I want to come back to later and take some action on, I will just mark it as Unread so I will be able to find it later easily.

So now you know how I deal with the 200+ emails I get every day.  How do you deal with yours?  Do you think I am insane and filing is the only way?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

8 Responses

  1. You and I have been preaching this for a decade now. Email clients self-organize, if you use the right signals, and native search has finally gotten good enough to replace stopgaps like Google Desktop.

    When I came back to Oracle in 2001, I made the decision to stop filing email, and I can vouch for the time-savings.

    Everyone who complains about too much email and insists on filing should be forced to stop for a week.

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    • Google desktop was the tipping point for me, but now Thunderbird 3 search is good enough for me to ditch the google desktop search. I often sit with somebody when they are trying to find emails and they keep going from folder to folder trying to figure out where they filed it and I explain my system, they usually look at me in horror.

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  2. Same here, David. I have on several occasions tried to “get organized” and implement filing systems for my email. Never worked and just created more work for me. So now everything important lives in my inbox and a few large folders that I auto-filter mailing lists into (those that I don’t see the need to keep a close eye on and read as I find time).

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  3. And now I have scientific proof that your (and my) approach works better than obsessive foldering: http://people.ucsc.edu/~swhittak/papers/chi2011_refinding_email_camera_ready.pdf

    (via /. at http://tech.slashdot.org/story/11/10/10/0043217/putting-emails-in-folders-is-a-waste-of-time-says-ibm-study)

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    • Oliver – thanks for the article link.

      The comments on slashdot are interesting reading, people feel very passionate about their process of sorting into folders and insist it is better.

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  4. I would carve out the two key issues for clarity: (1) Foldering/Retrieval and (2) Action items.

    On the foldering and retrieval front, I could not agree more. Moving items to folders is time consuming and rarely works. Even though I have some folders, in the end, I always use search. The take away for me is to simply archive everything.

    The issue of action items is not discussed much above. The power of a clean inbox provides the mental clarity that everything is handled (ie. either done, deleted, or moved to an actions list frequently checked). This lets you stay on top of your work.

    These are not mutually exclusive.

    Cheers,

    Paul

    Like

    • Paul,

      I agree that the discussion is not about using the inbox as a To Do list. This is not what it should be and striving to keep our inbox ‘clear’ is in my opinion and false goal and any clarity of mind from it is also false. It assumes that the items in the inbox are more important than any to do items that do not appear in my inbox. Is it really more important for me to file away informational emails than it is to complete a design document, a project plan, interview a new hire, think about strategic direction and get to the gym more often?

      Many people talk about clearing their inbox and keeping it clear and expect that I am impressed by that, I’m not. I think it is setting an easy target to trick ourselves in to thinking we are organized when in fact we are getting priorities wrong.

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