Are you a man of a million folders, or a woman of pristine cleanliness? Have you never created a folder in your inbox in your life, or do you go on a mad filing spree every so often? Chances are you can answer yes to at least one of those descriptions. In general, people can be separated into four broad email usage categories, depending on their behavior.
Knowing which type you most closely represent can help you determine how to modify your behavior to lessen the overload you feel from email. The four types of email management strategies are:
Wondering what type you are? Use this simple flowchart to determine your email management strategy, and read on below.
The strategy employed by these people is pretty simple: don’t create folders, don’t file anything, and don’t delete anything. Everything goes into one giant inbox, and no effort is spent trying to sort amongst different projects or assignments. A full third of all email users are no filers.
In fact, no filers may have one of the better strategies. As will be briefly explained later, filing takes an often inordinate amount of effort, and often contributes to the lost feeling that many emailers experience when wading through their email. No filers on the other hand know exactly where the message they are looking for is: it’s in their one massive inbox. Recall of a message only requires knowing either something unique that was said in the message to search with, or a cognitive recall of the surrounding email context (date/time, other chronologically related messages).
The strength that no filers hold in only having one folder is also their downfall—having thousands of messages in just one folder represents a near stream-of-conscious when it comes to their communication. Efficient recall of messages is entirely dependent on the strong searching capabilities of the email client and of the user, or the recency of the message. No filers will also struggle when the volume of messages they receive in a day surpasses their ability to effectively deal with them all. Having collaborative discussions will often kill anyone’s capacity to manage a no-filed inbox.
Rules, autofiles, and the land of folders, every email has a place and a place for every email. Does this describe you? Then you might be a frequent filer. As you might expect, frequent filers make a habit out of using their inbox as a triage, sending off emails to particular project folders, action folders, or archive folders. Approximately 21% of people fall into the frequent filer category.
If constructed correctly and with appropriate foresight, a good folder organization structure can greatly enhance message recall and lower the perceived overload that comes from email. Separating messages into similar groupings allows for better collaborative communication to take place, and requires less searching than other techniques.
Actually creating a good folder structure ahead of time is quite difficult. As was found by several researchers and confirmed by Nicolas Duchenaut and Leon Watts, “successful filing is highly dependent on being able to imagine future retrieval requirements, and that it requires considerable effort.” So unless you can know in advance exactly what folders are going to be useful and appropriate to create, users often find as they go along that some folders end up abandoned (“failed folders” as they have been labeled in research) or some become massive mega-folders that contain too many emails to be useful.
Not all of us have extensive sorting rules defined or are OCD enough to file each message as it arrives, but we do value cleanliness and order. For these people, a spring cleaning of the inbox to sort out messages from time to time is a popular strategy. In fact, the majority of email users (41%) fall into this group.
Spring cleaning your inbox does not require as much advanced setup as a frequent filer may invest in, and provides for slightly more flexibility when cleaning time comes. These people may also use their inboxes as reminders of what they need to do, and file tasks away when they have been completed. This strategy is probably most popular because it is rewarding to the user to maintain a folder structure, but does not require every day attention.
Guess what? Spring cleaners share many of the same disadvantages as frequent filers do, namely that folder structures are very difficult to create ahead of actual usage, and require a lot of cognitive effort to maintain. Those who employ this strategy must also take time out of their schedules to perform the organizing when they choose to do so, which essentially becomes lost productivity.
I myself would fit most comfortably into this category. The concepts of “inbox zero” and other philosophies of small inboxes would as well. Folderless cleaners are defined as those people who like to maintain very small inboxes, and either delete or archive away (as in Gmail’s case for example) messages that are no longer relevant. In this manner, an inbox becomes less of a historical record and more of a task-management center. The idea of an inbox as a task management tool is an entirely separate and large concept, but we’ll leave it at that for now.
Those with few messages in their inbox would generally feel better about the amount of stress coming from email overload. Recall is simplified for recent messages as they are usually directly visible in the inbox, or the user may depend heavily on the searching features of the client.
Unfortunately, once the volume picks up or collaborative conversations begin, it can become difficult to maintain a small inbox, and the folderless cleaner may feel the pressure from not maintaining their typical strategy. Also, when a message that represents a task or a to-do is out of the inbox, recall for that message is much more difficult.
The majority of the information contained in this post comes from an article by Fisher, Brush, Gleave, and Smith. Supplemental info also came from Ducheneaut and Watts.
Fisher, D., Brush, A., Gleave, E., & Smith, M. A. (2006). Revisiting Whittaker & Sidner’s “Email Overload” ten years later. CSCW ’06 Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 309-312). Banff, Alberta, Canada. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1180922
Ducheneaut, N., & Watts, L. A. (2005). In search of coherence: a review of e-mail research. Human-Computer Interaction, 20, 11-48. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1466572