Embrace the digital pile-up

‘When you’re trying to find an email needle in your archive haystack, search works at least as well’

One of my resolutions this year is to get more done. I seem to make the same vow every year and I suspect that many discerning readers of the Financial Times have a similar perennial yearning. But thanks to the research I did for my latest book, Messy, and a fascinating new book from Ofer Bergman and Steve Whittaker, I now feel I have a better sense of why some tactics work and others fail.

Their book, The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff, is an academic tome addressing a deeply practical pair of questions: how do we all cope with the ever-increasing influx of emails, documents, photographs and bookmarks? And how can we do better?

Two strategies suggest themselves: organise and label everything meticulously (the “filer” approach), or organise nothing at all and search when you need something. We could call this latter tactic the “search everything” approach — or “hoarding”.

Both strategies can work in certain circumstances but both also turn out to have serious weaknesses. Filers struggle because getting so carefully organised takes too much time, and filer strategies often break down as users become busier and busier. But, more importantly, filers often suffer from “premature filing”, as they try to categorise incoming messages they don’t yet have the context to understand fully. Folder structures that make sense at the time are often incomprehensible later. And far too much low-value stuff is filed when it should have been deleted, becoming digital chaff that obscures the target.

Meanwhile, hoarders risk drowning in a sea of email: it’s impossible to make sense of an inbox with 14,284 emails. Yes, one can use email search — in 2011 Whittaker and four colleagues showed that when you’re trying to find an email needle in your archive haystack, search works at least as well as navigating through a folder structure. But Bergman has shown why we tend to resist searching: it feels like hard work. It’s more cognitively taxing than clicking through folder trees, a process that uses visual memory without much effort. We like folders because they feel natural in a way that search does not. And most important: search only works if you remember what you’re searching for.

When coping with paper documents, there’s a handy intermediate strategy between filing and hoarding: “piling”. Pilers let documents accumulate on their desk, sometimes informally grouped by topic or project. The piles are self-organising because recently handled documents end up going back on top. Whittaker and Julia Hirschberg have shown that pilers tend to keep smaller archives. The stuff in their piles is well used, unlike the redundant folders of the tidy filers. Piling looks messy but it works.

But email poses a particular challenge — is there a strategy that imitates the informal accessibility of the desktop piles, yet works in a fast-moving inbox? I think there is.

Here are the principles of “email piling”. First, email piling should be simple — crude enough that it’s quick and misfiling is almost impossible. Second, it should be organised around taking action. Ultimately, you’re not building a library, you’re keeping track of stuff that you need to do. Therefore, third: it should be visible. Your piles are reminders to take action, so they shouldn’t be hidden away.

So: crude, visible and built around taking action. The corollary of all this is that if you have an email that doesn’t require your action, you can archive it, safe in the knowledge that the search box will produce it again if needed. As a result, your email pile will be a jumble but a small one — just like the paper piles that Whittaker and Hirschberg studied.

That’s the theory, then. And in practice? I use Gmail’s “multiple inbox” function to sort my emails into three categories: yellow star for stuff to do, blue star for stuff to read and red star for stuff that’s waiting for someone else. (Assigning the star requires just a click or two.) Unlike normal folders, all three of these categories are in plain sight whenever I open Gmail itself: three simultaneous colour-coded inboxes.

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I find this digital piling works remarkably well, at least for me. Most emails don’t fit in any of the categories — a sign that it should be replied to and/or archived immediately. The “to do” inbox is small enough that I don’t feel anxious that things will be lost. And, as an added benefit, if I check email on my phone and see that it requires a proper reply from a proper keyboard, I can dump it in my “to do” inbox and it vanishes from the phone to reappear on the computer, where it can be properly handled. When the email disappears, so does the compulsive anxiety to tap out a response with one thumb.

I have a few other folders but only for very well-defined bits of information I know I need to keep.

This isn’t a system that tries to organise emails once and for all, or tidy them away out of sight. The aim is to manage them as they come through. Rudimentary and unsophisticated might not be the ideal approach to life in general. It works very well for email.

Tim Harford’s new book is ‘Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World’ (Riverhead/Little, Brown). Twitter @TimHarford

Illustration by Harry Haysom

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