Do You Search or Organize?

Photo by mcfarlandmo on Flickr used under Creative Commons

On a web conference today, I caught a glimpse of someone’s inbox.

Protip: Close your email and IM if you’re presenting something. Unless of course, you want me to see your email folders, including the ones where you store “house” email.

But I digress. The person’s inbox had probably 40 folders, some of them with nested folders, which I’m guessing isn’t that uncommon.

As I’ve stated before, I used to organize email into logical folders, but filing email always took too much time. Inevitably, some email wouldn’t fit nicely into an existing folder, prompting a new folder, causing an infinite loop of organizing and reorganizing.

Years ago, I switched to the flat inbox approach. No folders, just one long list. I now have a local email store of 35,000 emails, plus another 4,000 on the server.

I’m generally able to find email I need based on attributes like, who I think sent it, when I received it, etc. For any others, I use Google Desktop. It’s a lot like my workspace and personal paperwork, i.e. organized clutter.

This system works well for me. As a hopelessly neurotic organizer, I’m freed from the obsessive compulsive desire to file everything. I usually have a good recall of where something is based on its attributes, which is kind of like organizing I suppose, without the filing bit.

Of course, there are occasions when I can’t find something by searching, which is maddening, but they’re rare.

I know a lot of people file email (and dead tree documents) and many even use filters and rules to file email for them.

This seems counterproductive to me. People complain endlessly about having too much digital communication, so why do they add meta-work to each artifact?

Maybe that’s why people cannot achieve inbox Zen because they enforce filing constraints on the process of “doing email”, rather than just doing it.

What do you think? Are you a filer? If so, why? Are you like me, i.e. a searcher? What works/does not work for you about that system?

Find the comments.

Update: Realizing I feel the same way about Facebook and Twitter lists, i.e. too much work. Search needs to be better.




  1. Reformed filer, here. After realizing the skewed effort:benefit ratio that from tagging and filing (digitally, I rarely print email), I eventually adopted a modified Inbox Zero approach w/ smart folders: Inbox, Newish (3 days), Aging (3days-2weeks), Moldy (2-4 weeks), and Archive. Even that was probably too much, but it was maintenance-free after defining the folders. Spotlight took care of the rest, and also helped desktop side; I defined a few broad categories in the Documents folder, I stopped worrying about where things were.

    I think the file-vs-search debate has implications for ECM, too. I don't know if the terms taxonomy and ontology get thrown around much in content management planning meetings, but I suspect a lot of time is devoted to the concepts, and the result is that people spend time trying to figure out where to put something so it can be found later, without taking time to instill a culture of using search tools instead. I'm not arguing for no structure at all, I've just had too many “I know this belongs in folder X, but should it go in subfolder Y or subfolder Z” conversations in my life. 😉

  2. For me, definitely file. I can never remember who sent something, what the subject line was, etc. And most tagging systems don't let me refine to the level I would need. By filing, I can file and forget. I often end up looking in a folder for something from several months ago, and it's easy to go to the folder and search (or just look at) it. If something really needs to go to 2 folders, just make a copy. Not that hard.

    If I could remember who sent the notes or what the subject lines were, I'd do what my wife does and leave it all in the Inbox. Instead I have a very large folder system that is simple (for me). I would really rather be able to tag and then search on the tags, but I have not yet found an email system that would let me search, for example, 4-5 tags at once (refining as you go).

  3. Very much a searcher here, never been a filer & not really understood how it helps

    @Chris re:search 4-5 tags
    in various webmails you should be able to search for (eg gmail) “label:party”, then add another on the end & hit enter(or search) “label:party label:work” and then further “label:party label:work label:christmas”
    Just adding the new label on the end of your current search each time should work fine (though I don't have enough tags/labels to narrow further than 3 at once)

  4. Ah yes, I neglected to mention I use Spotlight on the Mac side b/c TBird search is teh suck on my Ubuntu box.

    I'm sure Bex and Billy can talk taxonomy and ontology in UCM all day long. I see the UCM use cases as pretty simple, private, public and for a group. Beyond that, I'm w/you on structure debates, low value to cost.

  5. Just make a copy? So you're a denormalist 🙂

    Don't clients like Postbox or Eudora have the tagging you want? Or are you an Outlook diehard 🙂 I think GMail supports what you need.

  6. Filing is a meat-life holdover, where it makes sense. Although, when I stopped filing email, I gradually stopped filing paper documents too. We (children of the pre-Interwebs eras) were conditioned to organization by filing.

  7. Jajaja, that's an interesting debate. We have been over this for our future product and did not come to any conclusion… I guess we will do like Google Wave and permit both (tags/seach & folders).

    BTW, I am a searcher : 100% spotlight on my computer (+ some automatic coloring of files folders…) and 100% search in GMail (+ A LOT of automatic filters that I can leverage in search after…)



  8. Hmm, filters feel like organization to me 🙂 I prefer pure search on a flax index. The algorithm plus what I know about the artifact I'm searching for are good enough.

    FYI, you have a typo on your site. “Loosing time searching your emails?” should be “Losing . . .”

  9. Yes, this is so true! And same goes for the file system for documents/reports/images etc. And for any 'catalog', 'repository' that comes with applications where the users are supposed to save the documents/reports, etc.

  10. So, you're a searcher or a filer? Even though I use email as my example, the overall types apply to other systems, as you say. Seems to me that the effort required to continue filing tends to reach a critical mass, at which point people either start over or give up and rely on search.

  11. Ahh. good topic. I'm a die-hard organizer. If my inbox has more messages than i can see I start getting stressed. But i use my inbox as my 'to do' list as well.. if I need to process something from the email (info, action item, etc) i leave in my inbox if I can't get to i right away. Otherwise I file… I guess I could go to a 2 folder system. (Inbox, and Processed)… but I don't have much faith in Outlook search based on past experience of not finding what I was looking for… and my recall of attibutes is sometimes sketchy…. I'm a searcher wanna be, but my brain is more grouping – keep threads together kinda mode at this point.

  12. I don't have much faith in Outlook period. I wouldn't be surprised if Google Desktop can't index it.

    Nothing wrong w/organizing and filing, I just can't spend the time any more. I hear you on the Inbox stress though; I get that too when I have too many unread. I also use my Inbox for to dos and reminders.

  13. Work email, inbox stress, nothing unread, everything eventually subfoldered (9 years worth of stuff). Home email, I have lots of things that I may or may not get to, so have hundreds unread, besides the hundreds unread in subfolders (20 years worth of stuff, not including older stuff on floppies). Most of the inbox unread are supposed to be ruled into subfolders, but I haven't gotten around to that completely either, not least due to changing clients (thanks, C$erve!). Flat doesn't work for me because there is a hierarchy of importance – spam gets deleted immediately, important things get second, everything else is tertiary. That's just my top 5 email identities though.

    I'm stressed by people declaring email bankruptcy – I wouldn't send it if it wasn't important!

  14. Over time, the organizational requirements must weigh heavily. It's hard to believe we've been collecting decades of unread email. Makes you wonder what was in those, maybe not 🙂

    I also don't get email bankruptcy. Importance is obviously in the eye of the sender, but there are ways to make it work for the overwhelmed recipient. Email bankruptcy (and blogging it) feels like top-level navel gazing. Why not hire an email admin instead?

  15. Over time, the organizational requirements must weigh heavily. It's hard to believe we've been collecting decades of unread email. Makes you wonder what was in those, maybe not 🙂

    I also don't get email bankruptcy. Importance is obviously in the eye of the sender, but there are ways to make it work for the overwhelmed recipient. Email bankruptcy (and blogging it) feels like top-level navel gazing. Why not hire an email admin instead?

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