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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.