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Piling vs. Filing - Emailers Anonymous

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Is your email inbox overflowing with thousands of messages, or is it virtually empty, with only the few messages that have come in since the last time you checked it? It seems like a simple personal preference, but the answer to the question of whether you are an email "filer" or "piler" says a lot more about you than you might think it does.

While nobody can see into your inbox, the fact is that if you simply leave everything there and let it get pushed down by new messages that are coming in, you're almost certainly not giving enough thought to the things that hit your inbox. For pilers, the only clue as to whether an email has been dealt with is whether it is marked as read or unread. But all too often we read emails when we are not currently in a position to do anything about them. Even if we're careful about going back and marking messages as unread, they still get pushed down, out of sight, out of mind.

Right now, many of you with overflowing inboxes are probably screaming at your screen. How can we be so bold as to assume that we know if you're on top of your email or not based on this simple criteria? And plus, just last week we were writing about the virtues of Gmail. Gmail! You know, the email client made by that internet search juggernaut, Google! Surely if you need to find an email, it's only a search away. So why bother filing things at all?

Okay, we hear you, and understand your position. But there's really no gentle way to say this, so we're just going to come out and say it.

You're wrong.

Okay, there, we've said it. Everyone take a deep breath! Now let's look at how we can take such a controversial position in complete and utter knowledge that we are right, with not even the remotest possibility that we could be wrong. Alright then.

Mobile email quickly overwhelmed by bloated inboxes

If you've ever had the misfortune of attempting to access your inbox using a mobile interface, you've probably experienced waiting for the page to load up over a slow connection. All of those old messages that you no longer care about are just slowing you down.

Inbox as task list

If you've spent any time reading sites focused on productivity, you've probably come across the concept that your inbox should be used only as an inbox, not as a task list. While we completely agree, the reality is that the inbox almost always plays the part of task list, even if it's just a staging ground for tasks. Even for people that are meticulous about clearing out their inbox often leave messages languishing because they represent tasks that need to be accomplished, but are not big enough to warrant an actual entry in a task management system.

If you're not clearing out your inbox, what happens to these quick-to-do but important emails? They get pushed down, and you run the risk of forgetting about them. And while it's true that often tasks that go undone for long enough end up not needing to be done, nobody is going to argue apathy as a productivity philosophy.

Search is good, but not good enough

For the pilers out there that are screaming that modern email search makes filing unnecessary, keep in mind that often an email containing vital information about a specific topic may not actually contain very good keywords to help you find it later on via search. Filing or tagging your messages based on appropriate keywords will make it easier to find them later.

For this same reason, search does not help when using your inbox as a de facto task list. The whole point of a task list is to remind you of outstanding items. It can't very well perform this function if you are forced to go looking for outstanding items.

Why filing isn't really filing anymore

Along with the argument that modern search is good enough to eliminate the need for complex filing systems comes the argument that filing takes too much time. But the truth of the matter is that these ideas have nothing to do with one another. In fact, if you're willing to trust search as a method for finding important email, your filing system can be dead-simple.

The most basic filing system possible would consist of one folder other than your inbox. You could call it "Reference" or "Archive", but basically its sole purpose is to be a repository for all email that has already been read and dealt with.

Most of us will need more than one archive folder, but keep in mind that keeping it simple can be helpful to maintain the habit of filing messages. For an overview of an effective 3 folder system, check out Gina's Trapani's Trusted Trio post at Lifehacker.

One-key & one-click filing

While fighting with a complicated folder structure is one roadblock to consistent filing, another is the speed with which one can actually file messages. In fact, this could be the single biggest reason that people do not file their email away.

For every major email client, there is almost always a way to file messages with a single click or hotkey. Sometimes it is not built into the client but can be added as an add-on.

Beware of using your Trash or Deleted folder as an email archive. Some people will do this because it allows them to use the Delete key to file messages with a single press. The problem here is that it's just too easy for the Trash folder to be emptied either by accident, or by an overzealous system administrator, leaving you with no email history whatsoever.

Here are easy ways to set up various email clients for one-key filing:


SpeedFiler - ($24.95)

ClearContext - (Full:$89.95, Lite:free)

Getting Things Done Outlook Add-In
- ($69.95)

Apple Mail

Mail Act-On
- (donationware)

Gmail IMAP (free)
- note that deleting messages in Apple Mail while connected to a Gmail account via IMAP will archive the selected messages rather than truly deleting them


Archive button, "y" hotkey (free)

Tags: Apple-Mail, archiving, commercial, email, email-search, Emailers-Anonymous, Filer, freeware, gmail, Mail, Outlook, Piler, shareware, tweet-this