Hellbent on keeping your digital life in order, you maintain that inbox. You reply, delete and file away every email until your unread message counter says zero. Why are you doing that? It’s a waste of time.
Let your inbox run wild. Let it be the sprawling wad of chaos it wants to be. Let it fill up with tons and tons of unread emails like a patch of unruly weeds in the spring. Know why? You have a super-scythe called search that can clear through that mess with ease.
A recent study from IBM research confirms a belief I’ve maintained for years. Instead of organising your inbox, it’s more efficient (not to mention EASIER), to leave your inbox in a state of chaos, and just use search to find what you need.
We carried out a field study of 345 long-term users who conducted over 85,000 refinding actions. Our data support opportunistic access. People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviours are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding.
And really, what does clearing out your inbox really accomplish? Does it give you a sense of achievement? Does it validate your reading skills? It’s organising for organising’s sake. It was once essential practice due to the limitations of past technologies. Now we do it out of unnecessary habit. Stop it.
This doesn’t mean, however, email is perfect because of some XML coding and a search bar. But any gains in efficiency won’t come from micromanaging your inbox. It will come from reconceptualising email from the ground up.
Google has started rethinking this with their priority inbox. All email is not equal, and it definitely shouldn’t be presented as such. But why offload it into a separate folder? And why does it have to be 100 per cent chronological?
Instead of priority inboxes, what about just having priority contacts? Email clients should take those contacts that it (and/or you) determine to be most important, and keep their unread emails at the top of your inbox, ordered according to importance/relevance (similar to what Facebook does with your feed). The rest of your read/unimportant emails would just fall under the priority batch, in chronological order.
And then there’s idea of “superthreading” put forth by the IBM study, which is certainly interesting.
How might we impose higher-level intrinsic organisation on email? One possibility is to re-organize the inbox according to ‘semantic topics’. One could use clustering techniques from machine learning to organize the inbox into ‘superthreads’ by combining multiple threads with overlapping topics.
There are also simple features that could be added tomorrow and would make our lives easier: what if contact names were hyperlinked to conversation histories? Click a name, it would bring up your email history with that person (Gmail does this now to an extent, but requires you to surf through a series of drop-down menus).
But regardless of what email could be in the future stop organising. Start searching. And if that unread email number really stresses you out thaaaaat much, just do what I occasionally do: select all > mark as read. PROBLEM SOLVED, you neurotic bastard. [Technology Review]