Email Folders Might Actually Decrease Productivity

Email Folders Might Actually Decrease Productivity

We’ve long recommended filing away email into folders for better organisation, but a study by IBM Research finds that just using the search function can be much faster than navigating through folders to find old messages.

The problem, IBM says, is that people are relying too much on their inbox to to show them their to-do list. Finding those emails by digging through folders took 58 seconds, on average, while merely searching for them took 17 seconds.

They argue that filing these messages off into folders was more of a reaction to too much email rather than an actual productivity strategy. After all, if you aren’t using your email as a to-do list — and you shouldn’t be — there’s no reason you should have to look through folders to find those messages; Gmail’s search is already pretty great.

Of course, if you have filters that automatically apply labels as messages come in – -which tell you at a glance whether the email is important or what it’s regarding — that’s probably OK, as long as you don’t manually search through that label later. Hit the link to read the full study.

Am I wasting my time organising email? A study of email refinding (PDF) [via Box Free IT]


  • Searching is too slow, especially in a corporate environment where they use automatic Exchange archiving tools like Enterprise Vault. I had some tool called Xobni which made it fast, but it also took up all the RAM on my PC and made Outlook crash all the time.

    I don’t like folders either.

    I just remember stuff instead.

    Someone want to recommend an instant search tool ?(that isn’t called Xobni?)

    • Boris,
      I know that Caelo has a search tool (I think it’s called Neo). According to what I’ve heard from some of our users, it’s prety good.
      I haven’t used it myself, since we are in the “folder and filing” business: we are the makers of Tagwolf for Outlook.

  • I can never understand how narrow this ‘anti folder’ brigade is.

    What happens when you leave, or someone else arrives? There needs to be a clear, chronological history of the emails related to that particular piece of work – not my whole inbox!

    • +1
      I read this study a few months ago and I’ve been relying on the search feature instead of my folders for retrieval. Unfortunately, although you may know an email exists about a specific topic, it doesn’t mean it always contains the keywords that might come to mind when trying to search for it.

      I’ve been in just this situation recently trying to find a specific email to refer to and my varied search terms couldn’t find it. It took me over 30 mins to find the email. If I’d continued with my foldering (or filing), I would have had it in less than 30 secs.

      There are some circumstances where searching is just too limiting.

  • Funny that IBM conducted this study and their stupid Lotus Notes mail program is notoriously horrible for searching. Folders are the only way I can sort my stuff now.

    • +1.

      I use folders to store but usually do a sort by name and date [all emails] to find the email (thats just how my memory seems to work – oddly enough I’ve seen people create folders per person….)

  • I use Outlook Categories and Search Folders instead of manually created folders.

    Takes a bit of time creating all of the various categories, but you can then assign shortcut keys i.e. ctrl+F2 for Important.

    When the category has been assigned to the email, I then move it into a Processed folder to get it out of my inbox.

    Then create a new Search folder based on the category and voila.

    The advantage of this is that you can apply several categories to an email. This came about after I kept getting caught out searching through one folder and I’d put it into a different one.

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