Five steps to an organised inbox

4th February, 2012

Here are a few microeconomic analysis-tested tips to get your email under control:

I always liked Keynes’s view that it would be splendid if “economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists”. Time, then, to apply the power of microeconomic analysis to the important practical task of getting your email under control.

Step one: take advantage of free disposal. Simple textbook economic problems assume that you can never have too much of a good thing – at worst, you can always throw away the stuff you don’t want. We economists call this the assumption of “free disposal”. Of course, free disposal does not apply if you’re talking about visiting relatives, a tatty sofa or a breeding population of yoghurt pots at the back of the fridge. It is remarkably easy, however, to get rid of email: all that is needed is the “will to delete” – ideally the deletion should be swift and without remorse.

Step two: take a data-driven approach. A long-running question is whether you should organise your email into folders or not. Over the past couple of decades, our computer filing systems have trained us to think in terms of folders, but an alternative is to find old email by searching for it – or even just scroll through a big fat unsorted inbox. Steve Whittaker, a computer scientist at IBM Research, with four colleagues, has conducted a study to figure out the effectiveness of these different approaches. It’s called “Am I wasting my time organising email?” and the conclusion is “yes, you are”.

Searching for email tends to be quicker and no less reliable than filing it. I’d suggest that if you must file, choose something simple – for example, a file called “Not Done Yet” and a file called “Archive”. That should handle most contingencies. This conclusion is interesting but so too is the research method: look at what people do, quantify how effective it is, and let the data speak.

Step three: invest wisely. A complex file structure may be a wasted investment, but other up-front efforts can pay dividends in the long run. About two months ago, I began to be quite fastidious about hitting “unsubscribe”, or blocking people who sent unsolicited junk. Without wishing to tempt fate, I think I am winning this battle – the inbox is beginning to look almost human, filling up at a genteel pace with genuine email from friends and acquaintances rather than mailing lists and unknown publicists. On most email programmes such filters are very simple and quick to set up; at first they might seem more trouble than they are worth, but trust me, they can pay dividends.

Step four: remember that, in extremis, bankruptcy can be your friend. From time to time individuals or companies can find themselves in a situation where the shadows of the past are simply unmanageable. We’ve found it helpful to introduce procedures for bankruptcy, whereby a line can be drawn under unpayable debts and everybody involved can figure out where they stand. Email bankruptcy can work for you, too.

Simply craft a short email explaining that you have become overwhelmed by your email and are not going to respond, and inviting them to send the email again if it’s really important. Email bankruptcy, like real bankruptcy, is probably not as much fun as it sounds – and easier for arty types and high-status individuals. But for some people, it beats the alternative.

Step five: never forget opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the idea that what you’re paying for something – anything – is whatever you have to give up in order to get it. Email has a cost: every hour spent wading through the inbox is an hour that isn’t being spent doing something more useful, such as reading a book, relaxing with the family or even writing a handy column about how to manage your email.

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