A recent study by IBM Research asks “Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding”. Their answer is “yes”. But being academics there’s an extra ten pages tacked onto that response.
Before giving my views, I should explain my bias upfront. I’m a “frequent filer” in the terminology of the study which borrows the terms “no filer”, “frequent filer”, and “spring cleaner” from Whittaker and Sidner. I have a fairly static set of folders that I offload emails from my inbox into once they aren’t needed for action anymore.
So what did the IBM researchers have to say about people like me?
While people who manually organize more information into folders are more likely to rely on these for retrieval, high filers were no more successful at retrieval. Further, they were less efficient because folder-accesses took longer on average.
D’oh! I’m wasting my time. What should I use instead? The authors view conversation threads quite favorably, saying “Threads impose order on the mailbox, reducing the need for preparatory strategies.”
I’ll concur most of my filed e-mails never get used and filing system can be somewhat erratic. I started using tagging for a while since it seemed more flexible (you can have multiple tags on one email), but gave it up after a while. And I do use full text search frequently (from Windows search, not usually Outlook).
This is a well executed study. It’s based on actual observation and real-life searching needs rather than being biased by the types of searches they are assigned. It tracked a decent number of users and, while they were all at IBM, their roles were spread around. Still, I think there are some reasons to file that provide value beyond the raw time per search they measured.
For me, filing e-mails serves three purposes:
- It cleans out my inbox to be used as a task list. The study found this is not uncommon: “We found that people who kept more messages each day were more
likely to folder … This suggests that foldering may be a reaction to incoming message volume.” In follow-on interviews, participants nailed it: “My inbox
is a todo list.” “I’m trying not to drown.” “My inbox stays clean. It has things I need to respond to or do.”
- It helps bundle e-mails for a particular purpose that can’t be easily discerned by their titles or other easily searchable attributes. One example is all the e-mails I have related to an upcoming trip to New York (formal meeting notifications, interactions with my hosts, travel info, and approvals that don’t all say “new york”). Another example is when I want to keep score, for example with kudos or screwups related to a process. That enables me to quickly compile a list of, say, 3 examples of when a department went beyond the call of duty. These sorts of lists are needed more often than you’d think.
- A psychological sense of accomplishment. As I wrote in Email Interruptions as Avoidance Mechanism for Cognitive Dissonance, I think that our need to accomplish tasks – to get things done – is challenged by the increase in information work with undefined goals and processes and that email is being used like a drug to get a hit of accomplishment when one feels he is spinning his wheels. The endless stack of emails in the inbox provides a bottomless opportunity to reinforce a self-opinion of oneself as important, decisive, and productive. Spending half an hour on a jumbled pile of e-mails, only to leave it just as I found it does not provide much of a sense of accomplishment. Call it an illusion, but I’d rather leave my information factory each day with a nice new piece of clothing rather than just feel like I’m just adding threads to the world’s largest ball of twine.