The smart way to tame your email in 2021: Embrace a little chaos

By JR Raphael

December 21, 2020

I spend more time thinking about email than any reasonably sane human should. From advanced Gmail settings to intricate tab training techniques, I’ve tried just about everything under the sun (and then some) to keep my inbox under control.

Now, as another new year approaches, I’m taking on a strategy that seems almost absurdly at odds with the sea of folders, labels, and other email organizing systems in front of us. Those tools, I’ve come to realize, are often doing more harm than good. And that’s why I’ve decided to manage my email by mostly just ignoring them—and doing absolutely nothing.

All right—so “nothing” might be a little misleading. I’ll still answer emails, as needed (and only with mild disgruntlement), and I’ll archive messages as I deal with them. But in terms of actual ongoing organization, I won’t devote any meaningful time or energy to marking my emails in any particular way or filing them away in any specific manner.

In other words, I’m embracing a deliberately disorganized inbox in the name of email efficiency. And counterintuitive as it may seem on the surface, there’s a reasonable argument that it might just be a sensible strategy for success—one that you, too, would be wise to adopt.

Let me explain.

The email organization fallacy

For years, the common logic with email has been that the more you organize it, the better off you’ll be. Google the phrase “how to organize email,” and you’ll find pages upon pages of results instructing you to come up with a full-fledged email organization framework—something that involves a carefully defined system of folders or labels and a certain amount of time set aside every day for meticulously marking, arranging, and fussing over your incoming messages.

Different mail clients have different mechanisms for managing such a feat, but the underlying idea is usually the same: It’s up to you to organize your emails as you go, lest you find yourself with a cluttered and (gasp!) disorganized inbox.

Here’s the thing, though: When you need to go back and find an email down the road, odds are, you don’t actually rely on any of your carefully applied forms of organization. You probably don’t go digging through folders or labels and scanning pages upon pages of messages to track down the info you need. And if you do, you’re wasting your time—because the simpler, faster, and far more effective method of finding messages in an inbox is searching.

The entire point of Gmail—the reason it was created in the first place—was to serve as a Google-like search engine for your email.

That wasn’t always the case, of course. Back in the early days of email, searching an inbox was a downright painful experience. Especially if you had a sizable backlog of old messages—which were almost certainly stored locally on your own computer at that point—you’d type something into your mail client’s search box and then prepare to wait a good long while for the program to excavate what you needed (if it ever even did). Back then, filing messages away with a carefully thought-out organizational system was not only a time-saver; it was a necessity.

But ever since Gmail came along and made email searching a near-instantaneous task, those sorts of systems have stuck around mostly as relics and legacy-level creature comforts. The entire point of Gmail—the reason it was created in the first place—was to serve as a Google-like search engine for your email and make it easy to find anything you needed without wasting time. And Gmail’s rivals have introduced their own Google-esque search to stay competitive.

Gmail deliberately launched without a traditional folder-filing system in place, in fact, because its architects saw the archiving-and-searching method it encouraged as being a vastly superior way to manage messages—and because they expected folders to be redundant and unnecessary within that arrangement. Google eventually made labels more prominent and folder-like in their presentation solely because, as a 2010 Google Research document explains it, users were abandoning Gmail since it was “lacking their familiar folders.”

But actual scientific research suggests that Gmail’s original strategy of archiving and searching was surprisingly sound. A group of IBM researchers observed the email habits of 345 people for a 2011 study, examining how they found older messages in their inboxes—and whether any time they’d invested in meticulous filing and organizing actually paid off. Their conclusion: “People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success.”

The researchers found that relying on folders for email organization both wastes time at the start, given the manual effort required to keep filing every email away, and is ultimately less effective than searching when it comes to later email retrieval.

That’s quite a telling conclusion—and one that matches up with my own anecdotal experiences. But in practical terms, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to abandon all methods of inbox organization. It just means you have to be thoughtful in coming up with the right kinds of systems that enhance your organization without wasting your time.

A middle ground for inbox organization

With all of this highly geeky knowledge in mind, here’s a good general rule to consider: If a method of inbox organization makes it easier for you to process or later find your emails without requiring any ongoing effort on your part, then it’s worth doing. If it gives you more work without any tangible gain, then it’s best to let go.

The key, I’ve found, is focusing on systems of organization that are largely automated—things you set up once and then empower to work for you instead of requiring you to do the work yourself. For instance, I have certain types of messages that are especially high priority and important to address in a timely manner. I use a Gmail filter to automatically place a special “VIP” label and a star onto any such messages as they arrive. That causes those emails to stand out visually in my inbox so they’ll grab my attention, and it also causes them to notify me on both my phone and my computer in a way that most regular emails don’t, thanks to some crafty configuration.

Another example is the way I handle responses to the welcome message that’s sent out to new subscribers of my newsletter. I always read and respond to those emails, but I try to handle them in bulk, at a few specific times of day, in order to be more efficient. So I’ve used another bit of deliberate Gmail hacking to automatically find and identify those messages and move them into the Social tab of my inbox, which I’ve repurposed to host those specific messages and nothing else. As a result, those emails are always lumped together in a streamlined spot where they’re easy to find but not mixed in with the more pressing items in my Primary inbox tab.

The key with both of these systems is that they’re methods of organization that serve a specific purpose and that don’t create any ongoing busy work for me. On a day-to-day basis, all I typically do is respond to what’s needed, archive what’s finished, and occasionally snooze something if I don’t have time to deal with it right away or if it won’t be relevant until later.

And when I need to find an email I’ve archived, no matter what it’s about or when it was sent, I simply use Gmail’s search system to track it down and turn it up. You can certainly allow yourself some wiggle room to figure out what combination of tools and systems works best for you. But if you’re spending your time filing and organizing emails and then hunting around for them instead of just searching, the start of the new year is a fine time to step back and reassess your strategy.

Sometimes, less is more—and when it comes to email, specifically, a deliberately disorganized inbox might just be the most effective organizational system of all.

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