Date posted: 5/11/2018 5 min read

Emails and how to find them

Rather than wasting time sorting your emails, take the time to hone your search skills.

In Brief

  • Sorting emails into folders is inefficient, according to an IBM research paper
  • Searching to refind emails is more effective, especially with a threaded inbox view
  • Outlook 2016 and Gmail offer a range of search operators to help narrow the results

By Adam Turner

If your overflowing inbox has collapsed into an information black hole then it's time to master the art of search. Fastidious organisers may favour sorting emails into nests of sub-folders. And many people who don’t sort feel a little guilty that they’re not organising their mail like this. But research from IBM* makes it clear that manually sorting can be a waste of time. The guilt-stricken non-sorters should not feel guilty at all. Searching is faster and just as successful when you need to find that critical piece of information.

Seek and you shall find

IBM's study of email "refinding" tracked the habits of 345 long-term email users over 85,000 refinding operations.

Earlier studies had already shown that people manage their email in two quite different ways. Some favour a "preparatory" approach; they created complex folder structures and classified their emails with flags or tags. Meanwhile, others took a quite different "opportunistic" approach, relying on searching and scrolling to find what they need.

Opportunistic searchers are assisted by threading, which groups emails by conversation to make it easier to find related emails. Threading also reduces inbox clutter and the need to scroll.

The IBM research found that one of these approaches is clearly better – search and threading, which promotes more effective finding In contrast, preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success.

It can still be useful to automatically filter some emails into folders using rules, such as newsletters. The result is a less cluttered view of your inbox and a reduced likelihood of overlooking an important message. 

Reducing clutter also helps those who use their inbox as a de facto to-do list, although some productivity experts would argue this isn't the best way to handle task management.

Narrow your view

So if you're going to become searcher rather than a sorter, it pays to learn how to search efficiently when looking find the needle in your digital haystack.

Outlook 2016 and Gmail reduce clutter by showing your "Focused" or "Primary" inbox by default. This improves the signal-to-noise ratio by hiding the likes of marketing emails and updates from social networks.

Gmail doesn't support traditional folders. It is possible to replicate something similar using "labels" – but remember that the goal is to move away from a folder-centric approach. Gmail offers a threaded Conversation view by default; you can disable it under the Settings menu. In Outlook, you can enable "Show as Conversations" on the ribbon's View tab and expand threads using the arrow next to the sender's name.

Preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding
IBM research paper: Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding

Searches in Outlook are automatically narrowed to the folder/label you’ve selected. To search within a Conversation in Outlook, right-click on a message and select “Find Related, Messages in This Conversation”. Unfortunately Google doesn't offer an easy equivalent.

Both Outlook and Gmail let you narrow your search using operators such as from, to, CC, BCC and subject followed by a colon and your search term. You can combine them, such as "from:Bill subject:Microsoft", and further narrow the search by inserting AND, OR or NOT between items.

Learn the lingo

Search syntax varies in other areas. For example, Google supports the search operators after, before, older and newer, or you can specify date-beginning and date-end. It prefers the 2018/01/26 date format.

Meanwhile, Outlook favours received and changes the date format. To search between dates you join them with two periods, such as "received:01/26/2018..02/26/2018". You can use < and > to search before or after a date, plus Outlook understands terms like "today", "yesterday", "January" and "2018".

Outlook also offers common search operators on the ribbon, along with "Include Older Results" when you're looking way back. You'll discover the Advanced Find menu under Search Tools. Meanwhile, you can call up Google's advanced search options by clicking the arrow on the right of the search bar.

If you find yourself executing the same searches regularly then you can save them in Outlook using the New Search Folder option on the ribbon's Folder tab. They appear on the left of the Outlook interface, below the normal folders, and are updated automatically. In Gmail, the only option is to bookmark the URL of your specific search, as unfortunately the experimental Quick Links feature was abandoned with the shift to the new Gmail interface.

*Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding, by Steve Whittaker, Tara Matthews, Julian Cerruti, Hernan Badenes and John Tang, available at bit.ly/2OC3gzt

Adam Turner is a freelance technology journalist and Sydney Morning Herald columnist.

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