Lauren Goode

Recent Posts by Lauren Goode

Want to Organize Your Email? Go for High Thread Count, Not Folders.

Today marks the start of the fifth annual COYIW. OMG, you don’t know what COYIW is? ICYI, it stands for Clean Out Your Inbox Week — five whole workdays devoted to detoxing your inbox. For this year’s initiative, COYIW creator Marsha Egan partnered with Google to encourage people to get their inboxes organized.

Organizing your inbox might sound tempting. The Radicati Group reports that the average employee spends about 25 percent of their day on email; by 2013, approximately 507 billion email messages will be sent each day. Many people dream of hyperproductive days unhampered by junk mail, forwards and unimportant exchanges. We’re envious of (and slightly annoyed by) friends who accomplish that “inbox zero” feat (and then post about it on Facebook or Twitter — you know who you are).

But before you get obsessive-compulsive about color-coding and labeling emails, keep in mind that over-organizing doesn’t necessarily solve your email problems. In fact, you’ll likely remember less of the information that’s in the emails if you do that.

A study conducted last year by IBM Research — originally posted on MIT’s Technology Review — found that while “active foldering” reduces the complexity of the inbox, there’s a lack of systematic data about the extent to which these folders are actually used, so it’s hard to determine whether the hours occupied by filing emails to folders is time well spent.

Also, “frequent filers” tend to remember less than non-frequent filers about their email messages. The IBM Research study, which analyzed 345 frequent users’ methods of finding emails, found that email users tended to have pretty good memories when it came to content, purpose, or task-related information in emails, recalling more than 80 percent of such information; those who moved things into folders were less likely to remember these things, possibly because they were not frequently exposed to the information in the inbox.

Of course, users aren’t going to remember everything that’s conveyed in every email. But when it comes to effective search — which in some cases negates the need for all that foldering — remembering key words is, well, key.

Lastly, the study suggests that email threading is the better alternative to manually moving emails into designated folders. People with high thread-count emails were less likely to use or need to use folders, and people with more threads were less likely to need to scroll through their inboxes, as well, suggesting that threads were an effective way to compress inbox information.

Gmail already has a pretty efficient search function and collates emails into threads. But as part of Google’s efforts to push Google+ in other areas — like search — the company is also suggesting Gmail solutions through Google+. In fact, new Gmail users don’t have a choice when it comes to Google+; building a profile is part of the sign-up process. (Google’s current Gmail user base: 350 million; Google’s social network users: Murky.) Searching for emails through Google+’s circles seems a bit confusing for the average user, though, and would benefit only those users who have spent a lot of time building up their Google+ contacts.

For those looking for outside apps to aid in email organization, some of the more popular ones include Xobni and Postbox. Others, such as Shortmail and Clarify, think simpler, shorter emails could put you on the path to inbox nirvana.

(Photo courtesy of robep/Flickr)


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