The Organization Battle - Do You Search Or File?

The Organization Battle – Do You Search Or File?

Some of you may know that in a previous job, I ran a support team for financial software product. Our product was web-based, and let’s just say that it had its share of issues.

That was great for job security, but one side effect is that I received a lot of e-mail. I started out doing what most people did – methodically creating a big folder structure in Outlook, and dutifully filing away each email to the appropriate folder.

This worked for a while, but then a friend showed me a plugin that would index my Outlook mail and I could do lightning-fast searches.[1]

I am not exaggerating to say that learning to search instead of dig through folders completely changed my job for the better – in a second I could bring up a random email from a client where we had made some decision four years ago that was just impacting us now, or look through and find a document that no one could track down.

Needless to say, I am a big proponent of learning how to use the search function, whether we are talking about e-mail or or paperless documents, and I am not a proponent of complex folder structures.

I bring all this up because there was an interesting battle[2] last month revolving around a research study from IBM titled Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding.

On the Harvard Business Review blog, Michael Schrage had a good summary of the report, with an interesting take:

How much time do you spend each day getting better organized? Cut it in half.
When it comes to investing time, thought and effort into productively organizing oneself, less is more. In fact, not only is less more, research suggests it may be faster, better and cheaper.

Michael Schechter over at A Better Mess takes issue with some of Schrage’s conclusions, and suggests that time spent upfront thoughtfully figuring out an organization system will pay off:

Persistent organizing will lead you astray; constantly seeking new ways to avoid procrastination becomes a sort of procrastination itself. But Schrage either overlooks or ignores the benefits of time spent choosing the right tools upfront (or as I call it, organizing) and occasionally (OCCASIONALLY) taking a step back to see how we can improve our system.

Given everything that I wrote above about searching e-mails, you would think that I am firmly in Schrage-ville on this one, and I am on a personal level. I have absolutely no doubt that searching is “better” than filing.

However, one thing I have learned over the years writing DocumentSnap and talking to readers is that what works for one person does not work for someone else.

Even if relying on search is scientifically “better”, there is a big chunk of the population that finds it extremely stressful not to have everything in its place, digitally or otherwise.

If people find their technology stressful, they won’t use it to solve the problem that they are trying to solve (in a DocumentSnap reader’s case, going paperless). Their lizard brain will kick in and they will go do something else.

IBM research or not, if you find that filing your documents into high-level folders works for you, go for it.

Just make sure that you get started, be mindful of the folders that you are using, and give the search functionality of your operating system or software a try (plug: I dig into it in detail in Paperless Document Organization Guide). You just might like it.

How about you? Let’s get it started. Are you a searcher or a filer?


  1. The tool was called Lookout, I don’t think it works anymore.  ↩

  2. OK, I might be exaggerating a bit there.  ↩

About the Author

Brooks Duncan helps individuals and small businesses go paperless. He's been an accountant, a software developer, a manager in a very large corporation, and has run DocumentSnap since 2008. You can find Brooks on Twitter at @documentsnap or @brooksduncan. Thanks for stopping by.

Leave a Reply 3 comments

Dave P. - March 9, 2012 Reply

In January 2008 I stopped filing my email. I just keep everything in the Inbox, which now has 8211 messages. I used up my free 7GB in Gmail so I just paid five bucks for another 20GB. Cheap. And searching is much, much less time consuming than filing!

    Brooks Duncan
    Brooks Duncan - March 9, 2012 Reply

    Awesome Dave, needless to say I agree!

Daniel - February 16, 2012 Reply

Thank you for another great post. For my work outlook e-mail I send any conversation that is not pertinent to a project I am currently working on to the trash when I am done with it. Then I just have the trash auto archive so I can reference e-mails later with search if need be. Same goes for the project e-mails when the project is "done." I used to have a large folder structure and my psyche has felt so much clearer and less stressed since I moved to this alternative.

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