Stop Filing EMail

I had a couple of folks ask me in the past week about systems for filing EMail.

It’s easy. Don’t.

(I’ll cover later the legal obligation to retain certain mail, but that doesn’t change my suggestion.)

EMail is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse when you allow it to suck time out of your day. It’s like another useless but obligatory meeting, except that you waste time in more but smaller increments. As I wrote here, turn it off! Open it a few times a day for specific tasks. If you choose to leave it running, at least turn off the flashing cursor and sound when a new mail arrives. Interruptions are deadly to productivity.

Another great way to waste time is to file your EMails across multiple folders:

  1. It takes a certain amount of time to figure out in which folder you want to file a given mail.
  2. Often the “”right”" folder is ambiguous; a mail will semi-fit multiple categories. So you spend more time thinking about it, or duplicating the mail.
  3. When you do need to find something, it takes real time to visually search the correct folder… especially for those ambiguous items, when it’s not clear which “correct” you chose two years ago.
  4. When you look for something, it’s often in a different context, making it even harder to figure out which folder you used.

The solution: Don’t file. Search.

I have only four working folders in EMail:

  • My inbox, which I try to keep clear. I’ll write about that in the future.
  • Deleted items/trash, which I empty a few times a month, saving the past week’s deleted mail and dumping anything older.
  • Travel, where I put hotel confirmations, airline reservations, and other travel items that I may need to get to in a hurry on the road, from my smartphone.
  • History. If I want to save it, it goes into a single Saved folder.

(Some exceptions: If I were under legal obligation to retain mail on a subject, I’d add a fifth folder, Legal Hold… as a subfolder of my History folder. Also, when I was managing a department and had an employee about whom I had concerns, I kept a few mails about that person in a separate folder in case I needed the evidence behind my concerns. Finally, an attorney with multiple clients probably needs to segregate the client-specific information, though in that case it’s pretty obvious into which folder something must be placed. Even so, put the client folders under a generic History folder so you can search across them easily to, say, find an example of a specific contract clause you want to use as a model.

The reason I suggest putting any subfolders under the History folder is to facilitate search, eliminating the Trash/Deleted folder from the search range.)

Now, whenever I want to find an old mail — whether from this morning or four years ago — I simply search my History folder. It takes only a few clicks, and it’s almost instantaneous — far faster, at any rate, than scanning a pile of mail headers. I can search the From or To fields (or both), look for words in the body of the mail, even search only attachments. No more worrying about which folder I filed something in.

Some mail tips work for some people but not others. However, I think the search-instead-of-file method works for most anyone. I’ll write about why it works tomorrow.

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