There are a few tools that Mail provides that make this possible: its lightning fast search functionality allows me to quickly find messages by senders, recipients, subject line, body and other criteria. (And with the third-party Mail Tags, I can actually add keywords to messages for more specific search targeting, though I don’t do that too often. More on that below.)
More importantly, there’s Mail’s fantastic smart folders, which are essentially fixed, self-updating searches that can ‘see’ across your entire database of messages. I have smart folders that show me messages received today, messages sent today, unread messages received today, messages I’ve flagged for follow-up, and a few more that can reach back into the prior week in a multitude of ways. These are invaluable methods of looking into my in-box without being forced to confront the ‘demoralizing overload’ of all those older messages.
For me, the key thing about smart folders is that they let me avoid the tedium of manually filing messages into traditional folders and sub-folders inside my mail client. I used to be a big believer in that method, but I’ve since come to realize that the upkeep involved in such a hierarchy — knowing when to add or consolidate folders, remembering what folders are intended for which kinds of mail, all the while trying to avoid the duplication of similarly themed mailboxes — is simply more work than it’s worth. I just don’t believe that busy people have any desire to maintain what essentially amounts to a taxonomy of subject matter areas — especially as a method of organizing one’s corpus of email. It’s just more cognitive load than should be necessary.
Being Organized vs. Appearing Organized
When I think about it, I realize that the root of my earlier belief in hierarchical email filing systems wasn’t so much a desire to be organized as it was a fetish for the trappings of organization. Any random check of my email program (Microsoft Entourage at the time), would have revealed a spotless in-box and a carefully manicured tree-list of folders and sub-folders. It was very satisfying to simply preside over what appeared to be such a carefully maintained system.
At the same time I knew that I wasn’t always stashing my emails in the ‘right’ place. Sometimes they would simply be misfiled through simple clerical error on my part. For some emails, the truly logical thing would have been to file multiple copies in multiple folders, but of course that wasn’t easily. And often, I would look for previously filed emails in a location that seemed completely logical in the context of that very moment I was searching for them, when they had in fact been filed away at a time when they seemed to make more sense going somewhere else.
My point is that in the fervor to climb out from under deluges of information, there’s often a tendency to focus on creating superficially pleasing yet inefficient tools for organization. This was my experience attempting to use David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done method; after initially setting it up, I marveled for a few weeks at how organized I felt, before realizing that the whole system was too difficult to sustain.
The beauty of Mail, I think, is that it allows highly imperfect yet still efficient management of your messages. In fact it embraces that imperfection. If you look at my in-box, it’s really a mess; there are messages in there that I should just delete because I will never, ever have use for them in the future. And yet, Mail makes no demands on me to separate good information from bad information; those superfluous email messages don’t stand in the way of my finding valuable email messages at all.
This is something that systems — and the designers who create systems — often underestimate: the importance of allowing for imperfection. It’s incredibly difficult to create a perfect system, even if that system has only one user (you) and it administers a relatively knowable body of information (like your email). I find it’s better to just embrace imperfection, to avoid fighting it with laborious hierarchies, and to give in to the fact that we’re never going to win in the fight against email.