Stop organizing your email into folders: Searching your email is way faster (study)

Takeaway: Stop organizing your email; searching through your inbox is way faster.
Estimated Reading Time: 1 minute, 12s.

Mail message

A recent study by IBM (PDF) asked the question: what takes less time, searching through your inbox to find a buried email, or organizing your email into folders?

To figure that out, researchers analyzed “345 long-term users who conducted over 85,000 refinding actions”, a whopping sample size to say the least, and they discovered some pretty incredible results. I’ll spare you the fluff and jump right to the main result:

  • Searching through your inbox is much faster. On average, it took participants 66.07s to search for an email, and 72.87s to find an email in a folder.

But the study doesn’t take into account how much time a user spends sorting their emails in the first place! When you add in that time (the study measured that “people spend an average of 10% of their total email time filing messages”), searching through your inbox is the winner by a wide margin.

I’ll agree, there’s something to be said about clearing your inbox to neutral so you you can start fresh every time you fire up your email, but you still shouldn’t spend any more time sorting your email than you need to.

As the study put it, you “might expect folder-access to be more successful than search, [because you] have made deliberate efforts to organize messages into specific memorable categories”, but search is so much more efficient at the end of the day because it takes you so long to organize and sift through your folders.

  • Dan Erickson

    I delete delete delete. My inbox rarely has more that a dozen emails because I get rid of junk and mail I know I don’t need to reread or respond to immediately. IT makes going through email easy.

  • I delete delete delete. My inbox rarely has more that a dozen emails because I get rid of junk and mail I know I don’t need to reread or respond to immediately. IT makes going through email easy.

  • Interesting.

    Categories serve as reminders for me because I sometimes forgot the important emails that needs to be reread so I put it into the important folders.

  • Interesting.

    Categories serve as reminders for me because I sometimes forgot the important emails that needs to be reread so I put it into the important folders.

  • Tomas

    I used to go through my old emails and delete them, but now I don’t even do that. My only concern with not deleting old emails is privacy issues as I use a Gmail account, but I’m sure even if I did delete them, Google would keep a copy for themselves anyway.

  • Tomas

    I used to go through my old emails and delete them, but now I don’t even do that. My only concern with not deleting old emails is privacy issues as I use a Gmail account, but I’m sure even if I did delete them, Google would keep a copy for themselves anyway.

  • Steve Blanc

    It’s about organizing not finding. I look through my “waiting for” folder for example and I know exactly what I am expecting back and where I am at with them. Knowing I’ve got them captured allows me to relax…

    • Frontjer

      Yeap, totally agree, as I noted above. We need to focus on getting work done rather than responding emails.

  • Steve Blanc

    It’s about organizing not finding. I look through my “waiting for” folder for example and I know exactly what I am expecting back and where I am at with them. Knowing I’ve got them captured allows me to relax…

    • Frontjer

      Yeap, totally agree, as I noted above. We need to focus on getting work done rather than responding emails.

  • Frontjer

    I think it really depend on what is the goal. If it is just pure emails search that yes, I would agree folders may not be efficient way of work. Yet, if we see a much broader goal as efficient emails management than organizing emails by some categories (or labels or whatever it is) drives efficiency and effectiveness.

    Say I’ve got a 30-40 emails in inbox, which is quite usual situation. It could be even worse if you leave your place for a time being. Now, there are really about 5-10% of emails are important, related to important tasks or stakeholders. If I just go within the list of 30 items, I need to do it “manually” one by one. When time is short, I could miss something what really matters.

    So, I found it really useful to organize my emails by … tasks! As simple as that. Task mean
    a mid term task for duration of months or so. Each task is prioritized. I.e. once I sort my emails (list of 30-40 items takes about 5-10 mins), I see immediately which emails I really need to focus on.

    On the other hand, it is often said – you are not paid for emails. You are PAID for getting work done. I.e. we need to complete a task and email is the simple tool for communication rather than our time killer.

    Likely, I found a great tool for working with tasks and emails named VisioTask (www.visiotask.com). It allows sorting email in such a way – by task. More than that, the tool
    remembers my choice and delivers following emails to the task box. I see immediately that new response received by indicator of new emails. See if helps to you.

  • Frontjer

    I think it really depend on what is the goal. If it is just pure emails search that yes, I would agree folders may not be efficient way of work. Yet, if we see a much broader goal as efficient emails management than organizing emails by some categories (or labels or whatever it is) drives efficiency and effectiveness.

    Say I’ve got a 30-40 emails in inbox, which is quite usual situation. It could be even worse if you leave your place for a time being. Now, there are really about 5-10% of emails are important, related to important tasks or stakeholders. If I just go within the list of 30 items, I need to do it “manually” one by one. When time is short, I could miss something what really matters.

    So, I found it really useful to organize my emails by … tasks! As simple as that. Task mean
    a mid term task for duration of months or so. Each task is prioritized. I.e. once I sort my emails (list of 30-40 items takes about 5-10 mins), I see immediately which emails I really need to focus on.

    On the other hand, it is often said – you are not paid for emails. You are PAID for getting work done. I.e. we need to complete a task and email is the simple tool for communication rather than our time killer.

    Likely, I found a great tool for working with tasks and emails named VisioTask (www.visiotask.com). It allows sorting email in such a way – by task. More than that, the tool
    remembers my choice and delivers following emails to the task box. I see immediately that new response received by indicator of new emails. See if helps to you.

  • Paul Vereshchetin

    I disagree with this tip, but then again, what work for some, does not for others. I would go crazy if my inbox had thousands of emails in it. Gosh, I hate when it has anything over 20 or something. And like other people said, it’s not only about finding an email. For me, putting emails that are relevant to the same project in one folder actually allows me to manage the project better, see the full picture when I need to. Most importantly, when you have thousands of emails in your inbox, yes, you can search for something, but only given that you remember that you need to find it. But sometimes you can just forget that you need to respond to something later and won’t search for anything. On the other hand, if you put that in some folder that you know you review daily or weekly (“Unfinished” or whatever), you’re not gonna lose it and will respond on time.

  • Paul Vereshchetin

    I disagree with this tip, but then again, what work for some, does not for others. I would go crazy if my inbox had thousands of emails in it. Gosh, I hate when it has anything over 20 or something. And like other people said, it’s not only about finding an email. For me, putting emails that are relevant to the same project in one folder actually allows me to manage the project better, see the full picture when I need to. Most importantly, when you have thousands of emails in your inbox, yes, you can search for something, but only given that you remember that you need to find it. But sometimes you can just forget that you need to respond to something later and won’t search for anything. On the other hand, if you put that in some folder that you know you review daily or weekly (“Unfinished” or whatever), you’re not gonna lose it and will respond on time.

Pin It on Pinterest

Emails suck. My newsletter doesn't.

After you sign up, I'll send you a few brand new productivity posts every Monday morning.

Join 200,000 monthly readers and never miss a single thing!

You can unsubscribe at any time, and I won't do anything slimy with your email. There are no catches.