File This Under Productivity

There are few things I like better than an empty email inbox. A while back, I learned a trick from Akilah Massey of Exponent Philanthropy that is helping me to enjoy that empty inbox state a bit more often. Inspired by a Lifehacker post that claims email folders may decrease productivity, she cut down to only three folders. She may as well have double dog dared me. I had to try it. I decided to test it out for a week using these two rules:

1. When finished with the immediate action on a message, don't put it in a folder, just archive it.
2. When looking for a message, don't look in folders, just do a general search.

The test week went well, so I continued for another week. Six months later, I'm still following this system. I never once had trouble finding a message that I needed. Being folder-free has freed up some time and mental energy. If I had to guess, I would say this saves me 5-10 minutes a day, and those precious minutes make a difference. It seems faster to search for a keyword or sender straight away than to remember which folder it might be in and then scroll through. I am positive that it's quicker to archive than to move something into a folder.

This is just one example of a phenomenon I've noticed in many of my interactions with technology. When I encounter something new, my first reaction is to fit it into my existing paradigm.

For example, early in my career, information was organized in paper folders. I had the choice to organize them by two or three levels of hierarchy, with perhaps a drawer for contracts, and contracts organized within each folder alphabetically.

It seemed natural to carry that organizing structure over to the digital realm. But searching and tagging changed all the rules. Now a piece of information could essentially exist in more than one place, with many paths leading to it. What did I do? I embraced searching and tagging, and began using those tools to find what I needed more quickly. And yet, I couldn't easily let go of the old two-dimensional, hierarchical structure. For a long time I continued to sort email into folders. I always had a sense that this process wasted time, but it felt comfortable and secure. Technology enthusiast that I am, it has been hard sometimes to trust in a tool's design and use it in the ways it can be most powerful.

Sometimes it takes a nudge from a friend or coworker to help me take that leap. That's why it is so important to foster an organizational culture where people routinely talk about technology and compare notes about how they are using tech tools. This allows tech-enabled productivity to be contagious. Challenge yourself to try something different, for a week, and then share the results with a colleague.

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