Stop sorting your email

There is nothing as wasteful of our precious minutes on the planet as misplacing something and having to look for it. That is why, we are told, it always pays to be organized. But not anymore. The times they are a changing.

Sorting has been central to several good working practices. The 5S methodology has sort as one of its pillars. There is a whole science built around sorting libraries – degrees in retrieving needles from haystacks. Sorting is indispensable in the physical world because the amount of time it takes to sort and keep things organized is much lesser than the time we would invest in looking for something we do not find.

However, digitization has changed that forever. We now have web crawlers that can retrieve every mention of the phrase ‘needle in a haystack’ in the library’s entire collection before the librarian can even utter that phrase. And as a result, the last couple of decades have radically transformed that equation we saw above – on the time taken to sort and how long it takes to retrieve. In a world of instant retrieval, the time invested in sorting does not have a payoff.

This is not just a passing notion. An IBM study covering 350 users and 85,000 queries found that average email retrieval time was faster with search than with sorting (66 seconds compared to 73 seconds). While this difference may not seem high, it does not include the time it takes to sort the emails in the first place – a whopping 10% of total email time. And yet, I have seen innumerable colleagues stick to the old habit of organizing every email they receive using folder structures and methods that librarians would be proud of.

In short, stop sorting your emails. If some of them are crucial, just bookmark them.

One thought on “Stop sorting your email

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