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Which email style is effective, search or folders?

The science behind email organization

We’re all looking for ways to improve productivity, and business professionals today spend a great deal of time in email which makes it an obvious choice for spotting potential inefficiencies. A new study by IBM researchers applies the science behind email organization and asserts there are only two types of email personalities – those who meticulously file emails into folders, and those who use search for “refinding” content.

IBM studied 354 long term users’ behavior by creating a modern email client that supports search, folders, tagging and threading so that users could choose their own organization (or lack thereof) method and conducted over 85,000 refinding actions.

The study says that creating complex folder structures is a preparatory effort that promotes effective refinding, as opposed to opportunistic methods for access, such as search and threading that promotes reducing the need to manually prepare.

Folders vs. no folders

“Prior work has argued that folders may be poorly organized and sometimes ill-suited for retrieval,” the report notes. “Our data support opportunistic access,” the report concludes, asserting that users who create obsessive folder structures do not improve retrieval success, while search and threading actually promoted effective retrieval. Research reveals that although a less effective use of time, complex folder structures are being used less for information retrieval and more as a to-do list that is categorized.

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Harvard Business Review’s Michael Schrage writes, “The essential takeaway is that the new economics of personal productivity mean that the better organized we try to become, the more wasteful and inefficient we become. We’ll likely get more done better if we give less time and thought to organization and greater reflection and care to desired outcomes. Our job today and tomorrow isn’t to organize ourselves better; it’s to get the right technologies that respond to our personal productivity needs. It’s not that we’re becoming too dependent on our technologies to organize us; it’s that we haven’t become dependent enough.”

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Eric Bramlett

    January 13, 2012 at 9:54 am

    I dropped outlook about 3 years ago after dumping a glass of tea on my laptop and going to an old desktop for 3 weeks while it was getting fixed. Folders are absolutely necessary with Outlook, which is absolutely inferior to gmail. When I set up gmail (apps) I added tons and tons of labels, basically mimicking my folder structure. After about a year, I learned to trust gmail's search, and don't use the labels at all. Gmail search is absolutely superior to folders.

  2. Tinu

    December 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    A mixture of broad folder filing and search works best for me. Without folders, I have problems finding emails when The search criteria leaves me too many returns to sort through, and a general sense of Inbox overwhelm. But with search, as long as I have filtering set up to store reference emails or to call my attention to important senders, it’s easier for me to communicate.

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