Piling On

I’ve been practicing (and advocating) a “piling” (as opposed to a “filing”) approach to email for years. It works incredibly well for me, and I suspect that it would work well for most people, if they could let go of their arcane and labyrinthine folder structures and just try it.

Folders are just fancy stacks, and I think most people would agree that stacks are the hobgoblins of productivity. They’re based on a few flimsy assumptions:

  1. You’re going to routinely need to reference most of the stuff you tuck away.
  2. If you do need it, then you’re going to remember exactly where you put it.
  3. All the time you spent filing an item will somehow be recouped when you do need to retrieve it later.

I have colleagues who absolutely swear by their mind-numbingly complex folder hierarchies. Seriously, folders nested inside folders inside folders. Content organized by project, by year, by topic, by sender. Honestly, those folders turn out to be more of a crutch, providing the illusion of organization…like a digital security blanket. Because the truth is that once you get past a handful of choices, you’re never going to remember to use all that anyway, at least not consistently (labels and categories are a bit better…but not by much).

And moreover, you’re disincentivizing yourself from taking action on messages, because you’re just not ready to deal with making all those choices. Certainly not every time you read an email. It’s the same reason people have the kitchen junk drawer…it’s just easier to keep it all there than to think about where it’s supposed to go. So, you end up with a perpetually cluttered inbox, the embodiment of all those deferred decisions.

Instead, I use a really simplified version of getting things done (GTD), which works like this. When an unread message comes into my inbox:

  1. I read the message (well, at least the subject line).
    1. If there’s no action required:
      1. …and I don’t expect to refer back to it, then it gets deleted immediately.
      2. …but I think I might need to refer back to it at some point, then it gets archived immediately.
    2. If there’s some action required, then I flag it for follow-up (using the approximate time frame, provided the email client supports it).
    3. If I can handle the action right away (< 5 minutes or so), then I do it, mark it as done, and then archive the message. This is crucial, because I want to know that it did require follow-up and that I’ve dealt with it.
  2. As I have time (at least once per day), I go back through my flagged items to see if there’s anything I can knock out.
  3. Otherwise, I wait for the flag to remind me to deal with it.

Sidebar: This technique also works with the Outlook mobile app’s snooze feature, which I have used and like quite a lot. If you’re not familiar, snoozing a message asks you when you want to be reminded, then removes it from your inbox, and then re-delivers it later so you see it at the top of your inbox as if new. It’s a lot like flagging a message, except that Outlook temporarily moves the message to a system-created Snoozed folder. The reason I haven’t adopted the habit of snoozing email more consistently is that the feature is still unevenly implemented. I can snooze email on mobile, but it’s not available on desktop (yet).

But you ask, “If all that stuff just lives in one big Archive folder, then how do you ever find anything?” Simple, I search for it. Modern email clients like Outlook have robust search tools that make it quick and easy to find anything you need. And when combined with settings that group messages by conversation, once I’ve found my target message, then I have the entire conversation thread at my fingertips.

On top of that, I also use junk reporting and Focused Inbox religiously. Anything that’s obviously unsolicited junk or outright phishing gets reported…to train the junk mail filters and prevent it from perpetuating indefinitely. And if “soft junk” (newsletters, coupons, etc.) gets delivered to my Focused Inbox, then I take the time to train Outlook to send that to the Other Inbox.

Over time, my Focused Inbox becomes a space just for colleagues, friends, and other important messages. I assume I need to be judicious and read most things I receive there. But everything in my Other Inbox view is regarded as junk by default, and every few days, I select all of it with the expectation of deleting it, and then I uncheck only the stuff I want to keep (which is almost none of it). It’s a game-changer.

Finally, let’s talk about Deleted Items. Given how meticulous I am about keeping a clean inbox, you might expect that I religiously empty out my trash. Nope. I never touch it. I’m perfectly happy to completely forget about it. It’s excluded from search by default, so it’s not cluttering up my results. But if I absolutely can’t find something I need and suspect it might have been accidentally deleted, then I can go spelunking to retrieve it from the depths. Which, again, almost never happens.

The point is: my inbox is just stuff that I have to deal with — it’s my triage folder. My archive is for stuff that I’ve dealt with but want/need to keep. And search, which works across both my inbox and archive, helps me find stuff wherever it lives.

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