Search is No Savior for Overloaded E-mail Inboxes

Last week, the New York Times ran an article titled 5 Easy Ways to Stanch The E-mail Flood.  As an author and speaker on time management who spends a lot of time taking about and dealing with e-mail for both myself and my clients, I am always interested in new tips and tricks for making e-mail more manageable and more productive.  Moreover, I am generally loath to take issue with other people’s positions on how best to do this.  However, this particular article left me with a sense of surrender and failure that has nagged at me for days.  So, on behalf of myself and all my clients, this is my response.

The Issue

The fundamental premise of the article is that e-mail and, specifically e-mail inboxes, are out-of-control situations and the best we can do is work within the chaos.  This is borne out early by the name the author gives his system – Letting Things Go.  Though fashioned as a positive, stress-reducing notion, the reality is that the mechanics of Letting Things Go fundamentally requires us to rely on Search as a solution in the e-mail inbox and to do little else.

To be fair, using the Getting Things Done (GTD) system as an example, the author observes that all systems require maintenance to be effective.  His (somewhat misguided) observation is that setting up folders and sub-folders creates another type of chaos and is, therefore, not worth the effort.  Without getting into a technical discussion about GTD, there is a half-truth in this author’s position, but he clearly doesn’t understand the fundamentals of GTD.

When Simple is too Simple

More to the point here, though, is the notion that, “Yes, simple is better” but too simple assumes too much.  The article’s first recommendation is the one I’m struggling with the most.  Tip one is to abandon filing e-mail completely and to rely only on the search mechanism to find what you want when you want it.  The obvious flaw to this approach is that it assumes you remember enough about what you’re looking for to accurately search for it.  The real truth is that most people (including Google) have yet to refine their search techniques to a point where the search returns are both limited and accurate.

Search is a Tool, Not a Solution

My position is different and aligns more closely with  human behavior.  That is, we like order and organization.  We prefer routine and structure.  Not everyone is this way but most of us are.  That’s why folders and sub-folders are valuable.  Ask yourself this:  If you had to go look for a client file, would you rather walk into a storage room filled with boxes with names on them or a pile of files on the floor?

We think in a structure manner when we are using our logical, rational mind.  Folders and sub-folders are just results of that preference.   More on this in a minute, but there’s an important point to address here before I lose too many of you with the, “He’s so out of date!” response.

That point is this:  Search has a place, but within a greater framework.  If search were so great and easy and intuitive, then you would not get “about 84,000 results” when you entered Tenkara Fly Fishing into Google (an intentionally obscure search phrase).  Eighty-four thousand!

Of course, you don’t have that many e-mails, but even sifting through several dozen looking for the right one takes time … a lot of time.

Where Search Fits

Search is one tool that can be used in conjunction with other tools and processes to speed up your productivity.  For example, in QuietSpacing® there are only two kinds of stuff – Open (things that need to be done) and Closed (things that are complete).  Open things consist exclusively of Work.  Closed things could be Trash, Archive or Reference.  Pretty easy to remember, right?

What if we put all the Open stuff in one place and all the Closed stuff in another?  Then, whenever we had to search for something, we could start with, “Is it Open or Closed?” which would direct us to a sub-set to Search.

Taking things one step further, what if we parsed our Closed stuff into folders and sub-folders.  Using Microsoft Outlook as a technology platform, we know there’s a Deleted folder already, so we can Search for something in there we think we probably deleted it.

We can set up Archive and Reference folders and sub-folders for stuff we need to keep for Work Performed (Archive) and Stuff We Use to Do Our Work (Reference).  The logic of the folders and sub-folders depends on what you do and your position.  Professional services providers can use Clients and Matters as their guide.  Managers can use Projects and Functional Areas as their guides.  Executives and entrepreneurs can use departments and initiatives as their guides.

And remember, many of the e-mail programs we use offer quick ways to move lots and lots of individual e-mails quickly.  In Microsoft Outlook there’s an icon right inside very single e-mail called Move To Folder that will dispense with the e-mail you are currently looking at with virtually no effort at all.

No Single Flaw

Scott H. Young recently wrote about the Single-Flaw Fallacy.  (Stated differently, there’s no silver bullet.)

His point was that we humans love the idea that there’s a singular reason why something isn’t working.  On the contrary, Mr. Young suggests that optimization of numerous factors is a far better approach to solving any particular problem.  I think there’s something in that idea – that incremental improvement of numerous factors aggregated over a period of time will result in a better solution.

Search is a tool that we can use, in conjunction with other efforts and systems, to retrieve information we need.  However, without some structure around how that information is stored, culling through the endless search returns will quickly eat away at the time we believe we saved by not filing Closed (and even Open) e-mail in an organized fashion.

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