Stop Organizing Emails. Start Living.

Last Updated Jul 22, 2011 10:20 AM EDT

Since I wrote a book on time management, people often expect me to be a Type A neat-freak. Which is why one of the lines in 168 Hours that people have reacted to most strongly is my admission that "as for e-mail, I don't file anything.” Indeed, "As I'm writing this, I have more than thirty thousand emails in my in-box, including hundreds of unread ones.”
Why would I do such a thing? Maybe it's bad habits. The recent CareerBuilder.com survey I wrote about on Monday found that many people who don't clean their desks don't clean their inboxes either. The press release cautioned "Don't be a digital hoarder â€" Just because nobody else can see your clutter, doesn't mean it doesn't exist, especially in your email boxes. Delete un-needed emails on a weekly basis.”
But here's a different question: why should you spend time organizing and deleting emails?

Once upon a time, inbox space was limited, but it's pretty close to free now. Indeed, Gmail was launched without a prominent delete button, because the assumption was that it was no longer needed. Sure, it feels good to delete spam, but there's no reason to delete an email from a friend about lunch just because lunch is over. Maybe your organization deletes emails periodically for security reasons, but as some embarrassed folks have learned in court cases, just because something is deleted doesn't necessarily mean it's gone.

Second, today's inboxes have search functions. That makes creating folders that organize by project or sender less important. You can just search by name and find what you need.

And finally, the biggie -- the pursuit of a pristine inbox takes time and gives people a false sense of accomplishment. Just because you leave the office for the week with all your emails filed or deleted doesn't mean you've changed anything in the world. You've moved a lot of data around. That's the digital equivalent of moving paper around (another thing not to bother with). Will you mention it in your year-end performance review? If you were interviewing for another job, would you mention your pristine inbox as a real asset to your potential employer? Will your children be speaking reverently about your daily accomplishment of inbox zero at your funeral?

Probably not. I'd wager the kids are more likely to mention that dad used that time to come home and hang out with them instead.

We all have 168 hours per week. Time spent organizing and deleting emails is time not spent on something else. Focus on what matters. The rest doesn't deserve the attention it probably gets.

Related:
Photo courtesy flickr user, kreg.steppe

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