Blog post

In Defense of Filing E-mails

By Craig Roth | May 25, 2011 | 3 Comments

CommunicationAttention Management

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Comments are closed


  • shaloo shalini says:

    Time to find what one is looking for is critical only if the ‘volume’ of finding is high enough otherwise what matters is whether you get what you are looking for when you need it, and asap.

    The whole idea of searching email banks on the fact that user knows the exact keywords. If they do, then being filers/non-filers is immaterial – they will find what they are looking for from a small subset that the search engine brings them based on the keyword searched. If they don’t remember exact keywords to search, then those who file still have better chance of zeroing in on ‘most probable subset of emails’ to look into and find the email that they are looking for than those who have to keep trying multiple keywords or keep scanning through hordes of unfiled email.

    Interesting study, thanks for sharing.

  • Mike Gotta says:

    Hey Craig,

    In some articles I’ve read, the act of interacting with an object, whether it’s email (creating a folder, saving a message into a folder) or tagging (a web page, bookmark, etc) helps people cognitively interpret and retain the information – the act of handling the information is more important than subsequent retrieval (that may never happen). I wonder if the article covers how interacting with information helps commit it to memory, helps with learning, etc. It might not be about “retrieval” at all.

  • Craig Roth says:

    Mike, that’s a good point. It’s the same reason I often take notes during calls that I’m pretty sure I won’t ever need. The physical act of moving the email to a folder probably leaves more mental impression than having the system automatically tag it as read.