I used to pride myself on how well organised my "stuff" was. At home, I diligently hole punched my bank statements and other various incoming dead tree sources and put them in a collection of ring binders, all in chronological order naturally. Likewise, at work, I sorted my emails into various folders and had a multitude of mail rules to automatically file emails into the right folder.
However, a few years ago, I stopped. I just couldn't handle the inefficiency of it all. I seemed to spend a stupid amount of time organising things on the off chance that I was asked to produce a particular piece of paperwork or quote a block of text from some email I received months ago.
These days, I rely on search. At home, at the start of each year, I take a big box that practically all my paperwork gets put into. Every few years, I shred/recycle the contents of the oldest box. Since implementing it, I've been asked to produce a particular document only a handful of times. Interestingly, it doesn't take as long as you would think to find a particular document and there's no doubt as to where it should be - everything is in one of those boxes. Meanwhile, at work, I have my "inbox" where all new emails arrive and an "Email" archive folder where everything is put once its gone through my GTD (Getting Things Done) system. Like at home, I create a new archive file at the start of each year. I archive my "Sent Items" into an annual folder too so that I've got a record of everything.
It seems that a recent study by researchers at IBM have produced some evidence that suggests that I was maybe right to change my ways. The researchers "carried out a field study of 345 long-term users who conducted over 85,000 refinding actions" and found that "people who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding". Finding emails by searches took on average 17 seconds, versus 58 seconds finding the emails in categorised folders. The likelihood of finding the intended email was no greater when it had been filed in a folder.
According to the study, "people spend an average of 10% of their total email time filing messages" on the assumption that such preparatory actions will expedite future retrieval. That's a pretty significant amount of time to spend doing something that doesn't really help you in the long run. More interesting for me was some of the results of the interviews the researchers held with their users in order to understand why people feel the need to create folders in the face of such evidence. They found that
"users receiving many messages were more likely to create folders, possibly because this serves to rationalize their inbox, allowing them to better see their ‘todos’".
Indeed, the study suggests that
"people defer responding to 37% of messages that need a reply" and that "deferral occurs because people have insufficient time to respond at once, or they need to gather input from colleagues".
In other words, people seem to have a natural tendency to use their inbox as a todo list and filing emails into folders is more to do with task management than an efficient way of finding important information at a later date.
So ... if you want to save yourself some time, get a decent task management system up and running (like GTD); stop using your inbox as a todo list; and spend more of your time making productive headway, rather than filing emails into folders in the slightly misguided hope that it will help you in the long run! It's worked successfully for me for a number of years and I haven't looked back!