Efficient Email

A short blog post this week but on a topic that I think will resonate with every reader – email.

I seem to spend most of my working day on email, and I don’t think I’m alone. A US study estimated that the typical office worker spent half the day using email.

Many of the tasks we do in email applications are themselves unproductive e.g. dealing with spam, forwarding emails or retrieving emails.  Imagine how much more productive you and your organization would be if we could eliminate this waste.

Email can be such a distraction that I know of numerous colleagues who have adopted coping strategies such as not opening their email client until a certain time each day.

A task I seem to be forever doing is retrieving or re-finding email. This is for a number of reasons. I may not have time to reply immediately, or may not be in a position to reply immediately e.g. if I need to consult others. The techie literature calls this “deferral.” In fact over a third of all emails are deferred.

I often have to retrieve old emails because they have relevant information such as contact details, attached documents, etc.  In fact, email has become an important archival tool in this digital world.

So what? Well, thanks to Tim Harford at the FT, I came across an interesting paper by researchers at IBM who investigated the efficiency of the two main strategies for retrieving email: preparatory organization and opportunistic retrieval.

With preparatory organization, users create folders or tags that anticipate the context of retrieval. They therefore simplify the retrieval process but require an upfront cost. The average user creates a new folder every 5 days and spends 10% of their email time filing messages. Such costly preparation contrasts with opportunistic retrieval, such as scrolling, sorting or searching, that shifts the burden to the time of retrieval.

Recently there has been a clear shift to the later management strategy. Email clients such as Apple’s Mail and Gmail use email threading (organizing email automatically into groups usually based upon the subject) and have powerful search tools. Even though I have a number of folders within my inbox they’re each so broad and contain so many emails that I usually resort to searching for specific emails beyond the recent past.

So, which is more efficient? Professor Steve Whittaker and colleagues at IBM found that opportunistic retrieval was twice as quick as preparatory organization. This is important because those people who adopt a filing system can save themselves 10% of their email day and can still find old emails quicker.

So if you want to make your working day more efficient give up email filing

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