Stop categorizing your emails—it's a waste of time, says one expert

Economist encourages us to embrace disorder

Disorganization is underappreciated, says journalist and economist Tim Harford in an interview with the Washington Post's Jena McGregor.

In a world where we're flooded with information constantly, Harford says we have two options: tidy the information into filing cabinets and email folders, or leave everything on our desks (or inboxes).

While we've been taught to view tidiness as an indicator of professionalism and success, Harford argues that disorder is actually the better strategy.

"It looks disorganized. It looks messy. But your desk is actually organizing itself," Harford says. When you leave the papers (or in the digital case, emails) untouched, the ones you're interacting with, reading, and replying to will naturally rise to the top, and the less important content will fall to the bottom.

Many people use email folders to achieve the elusive state of "Inbox Zero"—we've collectively decided the gold standard of digital organization is an empty inbox. But while Harford says seeking "Inbox Zero" is fine, he argues that perfecting your email folder strategy can be counterproductive.

"What doesn't work is this weird situation of, in trying to get your inbox to zero, you take your 17,000 emails and you start categorizing them and putting them into folders," argues Harford. "[This] takes forever and makes precisely no difference in the likelihood you will find anything."

Harford cites a study in which researchers installed spyware on a group of computers to track how people search for old emails. After watching 100,000 attempts to locate specific emails, the researchers concluded that email folders make virtually no difference in the ease with which people locate old emails. Using the search bar is equally—if not more—effective as clicking into a folder and scrolling, and it doesn't require the time spent creating the folders.

Harford does acknowledge the usefulness of one folder, and one folder only: one titled "action" that contains emails you need to act on. He recommends archiving the rest. 

Harford argues further that disorganization in other areas can make people and organizations more successful. When you have complex systems of organization, Harford says, they are often "tidy summaries of a messy reality." Rather than using spreadsheets, graphs, or slides to depict information, Harford suggest actually looking at information in its pure, gloriously messy form.

"You actually have to see what is going on on the ground, which is always more complicated and subject to human error and office politics," says Harford. When people over-organize information, they risk overlooking errors or discrepancies that might actually prove valuable. 

Harford applies this mentality to calendars as well, suggesting that the best way to use a calendar is to only write in the events that are absolutely necessary.

He also recommends planning on a monthly timeline rather than a daily timeline. Research found that those who plan their days with a great degree of detail are often thrown off by any small hold up, like an unexpected phone call or a broken washing machine. "It's fine to have a goal in mind," Harford says, but "you need that degree of flexibility" (McGregor, Washington Post, 10/31).


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