Congratulations, it’s a taxonomy – Tips for structuring your email filing system

You may be surprised after reading the title: “A taxonomy? I didn’t know I had one.” Yes you do, like all of us people who file their emails in a (hierarchical) folder structure. And that folder structure is the next topic in my series about email filing best practices and I will share some insights about it with you today. These taxonomies are important tools that help us to handle information overload, because they put all the information we deal with in a familiar, more or less hierarchical structure and put each item in its context. They are probably highly personalised, so certain people would prefer to call them “folksonomies” (as explained here for example), but that would lead us too far. So, once again: congratulations with your taxonomy.

All philosophical discussions aside, I think the key issue here is productivity and to be precise, the time spent or lost because of your taxonomy. There are three moments when there can be an impact on productivity:

  1. Set-up and maintenance. Setting up a folder hierarchy is an upfront investment and keeping it up to date is an even bigger challenge, even if the time spent on it for each update may be limited. For many people this is a hurdle for even starting with email filing.
  2. During filing. Each time you file an email, you spend some time thinking about where do you want file it and where do you filed similar emails in the past. Again, some people (here is just one example) will advice against filing just to avoid this effort. Luckily it is one of the key areas where Tagwolf relieves the effort of filing, because Tagwolf answers these questions for you in most cases.
  3. During searching. I will go in a more detail about his in the last post in this series (“How I search”), but the point here is that your folder structure has an important impact on the time it takes you to find back emails.

Building on these productivity considerations, I have retained three principles that are the key to an efficient folder structure:

  1. Make your own. The main criterion is that the hierarchy works for you. Do not use something you’re uncomfortable with, because you’ll pay for it in time lost every time you use it. A folder hierarchy is never wrong and it will never be beautiful anyway, so the only measurement is whether it makes you more efficient.
  2. No perfectionism. Don’t waste too much of your precious time thinking about the perfect filing structure. Coming up with the perfect filing structure for all the emails you have received up to a certain point in time, would not only be a very time consuming task, it would also be a completely useless task. Any new email arriving afterwards could invalidate part of your carefully designed taxonomy. And this is what happens time and time again. So I would follow Seth Godin’s advice on this one too: instead of fighting the lost battle about perfectly structuring the past, your time is better spent adapting your taxonomy to new evolutions in your digital life. Again, Tagwolf is there to help, because one of the characteristics we aimed for in the design was the technology’s ability to adapt very quickly to any shifts in the taxonomy.
  3. It’s about numbers. The number of emails per folder is an important factor for the usability of the folder. We have seen a number of fifty emails per folder as a typical average and I think that’s a good number. If, in a worst case, you need to go through the emails in a folder one by one to find back something you need, fifty is doable, but thousand would be painful. It would also be an indication that the folder is too generic and that it would be more productive to break it down into smaller subfolders. If you have folders with significantly less than fifty emails, it will get increasingly difficult to remember what these folders are about, so for these you may consider merging them into more generic folders.

In summary, the ideal folder structure is like the proverbial moving target, never allowing us to have it set up perfectly. But even the next best thing is a great tool for bringing clarity in the information overload we experience, as long as we keep it up to date and bear in mind that it is all about making us more productive.

Situational email management – Four types of Email Filing Behaviour

I have arrived to the second post in the series about my email filing routines, addressing the question how I file. There are two aspects that I would like to explain. This post covers the way I actually file and a future post will explain how I have structured my folder hierarchy.

Actually I have found that that I (and other people I have worked with) have 4 types of behaviour for email filing, depending on the situation we’re in, as shown in the graph below.

There are two dimensions in this graph, one external and one internal. The vertical dimension is external. It is the stress level that our professional lives put on us. This “temperature” of our professional life will fluctuate over time and is not entirely under our control. The second dimension is horizontal and characterises our filing behaviour from structured and disciplined on the left to completely unstructured on the right. It is internal in the sense that it is almost entirely under our control.

Each of the quadrants in the graph corresponds to a type of filing behaviour:

1. Regular Filing.

This corresponds to the lower left quadrant. It is the ideal situation with professional stress at a relatively low level and a structured approach for managing our inboxes. Obviously we were all in this state when we just started using email. I think it’s near impossible to permanently stay in this state unless we have a system like GTD in place.

2. Priority Filing.

When stress levels rise, our disciplined approach is put under more and more pressure and we move up along the vertical axis to arrive in the upper left quadrant, doing Priority Filing. This is the approach for inbox management that I explained in the post about the inbox as radar. It is highly priority driven, is far from perfect but represents a delicate equilibrium between the different requirements.

3. Catch-up cleaning.

This is the lower right quadrant. It represents another way to move away from the ideal situation, but this time caused by our own lack of discipline. The situation typically arrives when we are not under a lot of stress, so can handle our inbox in a more unstructured ad-hoc way. For me personally it is a behaviour that often accompanies creative phases, when correctly handling my inbox is the least of my concerns.

4. Emergency cleaning.

This is the upper right quadrant.  We arrive there when one of the two intermediate cases degrades further, either because of a gradual loosening of discipline or because of increased or maintained stress, or a combination of the two. This is the worst case and it is very close to an email bankruptcy situation.

The key point here is that we should try to maintain the zen state of mind in the lower left, but are pulled to the critical situation in the upper right by two forces, shown by the grey arrows in the graph above:

1. External Pressure. This force is primarily driven by an externally imposed increase of workload and pressure. First we’ll be pulled up into the top left quarter, doing Inbox Priority Filing, but no matter how disciplined we are in doing that, it is not perfect. Some emails slip through the cracks and with each such email, the clutter in our inbox gradually increases. When the external pressure persists, this situation can ultimately lead to a vicious cycle where stress and the cluttered inbox enforce each other. In that case we’ll inevitably end up in the upper right quarter doing Emergency Cleaning.

2. Lack of Discipline. This force is in our heads and its full impact hits us when we least expect it. What happens is that our stress-free, almost empty, inbox gives us a false sense of security and we get sloppy. At first that is not a problem: we are in a calm period after all, so we gradually shift from the lower left to the lower right, with our filing becoming more ad-hoc, turning into Catch-up Cleaning. So far so good, but then something happens and the stress level spikes, catching us completely off guard. We’re badly prepared to deal with this and the risk of a mutually enforcing disorganisation and stress spiral becomes very real again, which would lead us again into the Emergency Cleaning upper right quarter.

If these two forces are trying to pull us into the dangerous upper right quadrant, how do we get back in calmer waters? Going down the right side is the easiest, because the second force fluctuates with the stress level.  This represents a full cycle that I have observed in many cases. It starts off with the stress increasing, moving to a situation of Priority Filing (upper left) and our inboxes getting out of control after a while. Then, in the second half of the cycle, we get a bit more breathing space and start cleaning up our inboxes (swearing “not to let this happen, ever again”), gradually regaining control over them and moving back to Catch-up Cleaning. Finally we’re back to where we started: with a fully controlled clean inbox, doing Regular Filing.

Knowing all this, what can we do about it?  Can we  prevent these forces from pushing us into the direction of more stress an disorganisation? Well, in the end it mostly boils down to managing the horizontal dimension, i.e. our own discipline, which is the only factor we control. We can accomplish this by sticking to rigorous inbox management routines, supported by tools like Tagwolf. That way we are definitely able to stay on the left side of the graph and most of the time in the lower left quadrant, with the occasional spike into the upper left during busy periods.

Three reasons why email filing is a must

This is the first in a series of posts about my email filing routines. Since the idea for Tagwolf came out of a frustration during my email filing activities, these routines helped to shape the product and therefore I want to share them with you. I will start off with the simple question of why I file, followed by posts about how I file and I will conclude with the (surprisingly deep) topic of how I search.

But first back to the beginning: why do I file? Actually, there are many good reasons for not filing emails or at least not in a hierarchical folder structure, as advised here for example. Some of the main arguments against filing are:

  1. The vast majority of emails that I file I never use again. This strikes me every time I have to browse through a folder email by email. Most of them I never touch after filing.
  2. Filed emails present a risk. There is a wealth of information is stored in emails and some of that information can harm you or can divulge sensitive data if exposed. All the big corporations that have banned the use of pst files in their record management policy must have a good reason for it. And even on an individual level there is a risk: do you know how many passwords you have received via email?
  3. Filed emails present a data protection challenge. This is the nuts and bolts version of the previous risk. Archived emails on a local computer give a false sense of security. The information is exposed to all the normal dangers such as disk crashes, theft or other security exposures. Solutions exist, but they come at a cost and require quite some discipline.

Is this the end, then? We close the shop, go home and move on to something else?

Well, no. I definitely think filing email is an important activity. Before Tagwolf however, my point of view was not so clear cut because of productivity considerations. Obviously, email filing loses a lot of its appeal if the activity itself is too time consuming. But even without Tagwolf I felt it worthwhile going through the painful exercise of manual filing.

My business partner’s reaction when I asked him why he keeps his emails, sums it up nicely: “There is no way I could live without filing, my emails are my professional memory!” This can be broken down into reasons in favour of filing and, strangely enough, they are more less the mirror images of the three reasons for not filing listed above:

  1. The important emails in my mail history are of vital importance. OK, I never open most of the filed emails again, but the ones I do open are extremely important and I use them very frequently. This is exactly the image of the email repository as a knowledge base that Leo refers to.
  2. Filed emails are a form of insurance. This is the formal version of previous argument. From time to time, luckily not very often, I’m so glad that I have kept that one email in which somebody made a commitment, confirmed a formal agreement or recorded a decision.  Actually this is just the “internet age version” of good old record keeping.
  3. Filing emails is easy. Indeed, it is very easy and quick to set up a personal email filing system. Certainly when compared to a corporate or cloud based solution, the overhead of setting up your filing system is minimal and your control over it is maximal. From a productivity point of view this is almost a no-brainer.

Question: Do you file your emails? Would you feel comfortable without an email archive?

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