Your inbox: are you a filer, piler or searcher?

Posted by in Productivity

Within the confines our e-mail inboxes, we all rule supreme. Multi-level hierarchies? At our beck and call. Mark as unread? A mere right-click away. Sort by person? A cold stare alone might achieve it. This, of course begs the question: which kind of ruler are you – and how efficient is your style?

Do you file, or do you pile?

One of the most interesting things about getting to glimpse into the inboxes of other people, is to observe the myriad ways in which we construct mechanisms designed to support our personal workflows.

It’s difficult to make distinctions between different types of inbox workflows due to the sheer number of variations, but one is invariably true: whether someone primarily archives their e-mail in folders, or makes do with their inbox and a combination of markers, sorting and perhaps a few “archive” folders.

Or, in popular parlance: filers vs pilers – both of whom may also be searchers.

The filer

Creates meticulous, hierarchical configurations that allows for savant-like archiving of e-mail within contexts that correlate well with their individual workflow. May suffer violent spasms or convulsions should the amount of e-mail in their inbox be sufficiently large to invoke the appearance of a scroll bar. Filers typically search less than pilers, as filing provides a reasonably efficient method of retrieval.

The piler

In contrast, thinks archiving holds equal entertainment value to idly observing paint fade. Rather, they attempt to rely on spatial memory to recall the location of a particular e-mail in the “stack”, or sort the default inbox view either by date or person. Pilers typically flirt with search, but often end up sorting instead due to a limited understanding of the power of search operators.

Which is better?

It used to be that filers outstripped pilers by an order of magnitude. Filers invest a few seconds proactively to archive e-mail for swift, subsequent retrieval, which is far more efficient than spending a minute trying to locate an e-mail by way of spatial recall (read: where in the damned pile is it?).

Then, two things happened. First, paper went out of fashion, and a decade or so later proper inbox search arrived and – theoretically – made for a drastic narrowing in the gap towards filers. These days, if you invest a little time learning the search operators of your preferred e-mail client, you can get to individual e-mails nearly as quick as a filer – without spending time proactively.

Sadly, few pilers take the time to learn how to properly work search operators, which means that in practice, most pilers still lag behind filers measured in time to retrieval.

The best of both worlds

For maximum efficiency, I’ve found the best approach to be a combination of filing and a simplified set of search operators. Incoming e-mail is swiftly filed by way of keyboard shortcuts into, which are searched when something relates to a particular project, area of responsibility or customer. Sent e-mail, meanwhile, is searched for in the sent items folder.

To boost relevance when searching, the trick is to combine multiple relevant words. A typical example of an Outlook search operator for an outgoing e-mail would be ‘to:[contact name] [particular words]’ – sans brackets. Conducted in a sent items folder, this will locate e-mails sent by me to matching recipients with matching words in the subject or body.

It sounds simple, and it is: combined with filing, you rarely need more advanced search operators (perhaps with the exception of filtering for attachments and searching for recipients in CC fields). And, once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder how you ever went without.

Want to give it a try? Grab a post-it, Google search operators for your e-mail client and write down the three most relevant ones; more will result in a failure to commit to muscle memory. Stick it on your screen, no matter how much you may hate it, and remove it when it’s fallen out of use for two weeks.