If Your Inbox Has More Than a Screenful of Messages In It, You’re Rude

People that can’t reply to an email in a timely fashion are of no use to me. They’re of no use to you, either, if you’re expecting a reply and it doesn’t come in a reasonable timeframe. You took the time to email them, and ask something of them if you are expecting a response back. Doesn’t it drive you crazy when people don’t respond?

There exists this sort of “I’m okay, you’re okay” idea when it comes to email that some people are Filers, while others are Pilers:

Filers tend to have a very large hierarchy of folders that they have built over time, and carefully move each email to it’s rightful place once it has served it’s purpose. For filers, nothing feels better than to completely empty their inbox; it means everything has been tidied up.

Pilers, on the other hand, tend to leave everything in their inbox. They feel that they can quickly search their inbox for anything that they might need, so they can’t be bothered to take the time to build a complicated and confusing hierarchy of folders to have to go looking through when they need to find an old message. Pilers consider their inbox as a storage area for tasks that are on the go, reminders, pretty much anything they might want to store in digital format.

It is my experience that email “pilers” are infinitely more likely to ignore, miss, forget or otherwise have some sort of excuse for not replying to an email when a reply is expected.

I consider Pilers to be rude.

Let me explain:

The problem with the system that Pilers use is that email never stops arriving. For many of us, it arrives at a faster rate than we believe we can handle it (another excuse for piling). What this means is that as new mail comes in, important mail gets pushed down, off the first screen of messages, and out of the piler’s consciousness. That message that they’ve read 8 times and thought “oh, I need to get back to her about that” eventually gets pushed off the screen, and is never thought of again, unless the piler specifically remembers that message, which is unlikely. What you end up with is messages that waste time being read and reread again and again, which are often never resolved. Even the ones that are replied to right away waste the piler’s time, because they still see it over and over again when scanning for messages/reminders/to-dos in their inbox, until it is pushed off-screen by new messages coming in.

You respond to your voicemail in a timely fashion, don’t you? If you can’t be bothered to adhere to a system that ensures you respond to the email you receive, you’re being rude.

I, as you might have guessed, am a Filer. If you saw my desk, or my car, or my home, this would probably surprise you. You see, I’m inherently a very messy person.

I am a Filer, but in a slightly different way; rather than having a complex hierarchy of folders, I keep a relatively simple one. Work Related, Personal, and a handful of others. You see, I agree that there are search tools that allow us to find important email quickly (some good ones are listed at the bottom of this post), so I don’t feel the need to categorize to the Nth degree. This allows me to not be stressed out by my folder structure.

But the important thing is that I try to keep my inbox as empty as possible. I get between 150 and 200 emails each day, and yet when I leave work I rarely have more than 5-8 messages left in my inbox. The goal is to get to zero, and while it’s possible, it’s hard. Why is this important to me? Because I know that when people send me email, they learn that they can be confident that I will respond in a timely fashion. I’m teaching people that they can rely on me. Those of you that Pile are probably teaching people that they can’t rely on you.

And the crazy thing is that it’s no harder to be a Filer! In fact, it makes life easier, and far less stressful. I feel guilty only about those 5-8 emails that I haven’t yet handled; Pilers feel guilty about the myriad of emails that they may have forgotten in their inbox somewhere.

There are two simple principles to learn if you want to become a polite (and therefore reliable) email correspondent:

<li>Inbox means In-box. It's meant to catch everything that is coming in. It is not a task list. It is not a reminder area or note board. Tasks that need to be accomplished should have their own place; whether you use the Task section in Microsoft Outlook, a simple Tasks folder to move emails to that need to be done, or even a scrap of paper with a list of To-do items on it. Move emails that require you to do something to an appropriate place. Move reference material to an appropriate place, even if it's simply a folder called 'Reference'. Delete the messages you don't need.</li>

<li>Reply. Give an answer. Even if that answer is 'no'. It's so tempting to let a message linger in your Inbox when you know that you can help or know the answer the sender is looking for, but don't have time right now. You want to be helpful. But by procrastinating, and putting off the reply, you're not truly being helpful. If you know that you will not be able to reply fully in a timely fashion, let the person know. Reply and give them a timeframe of when you will be able to give their message the attention it needs, and/or provide them with an alternative course of action. If you know that Debbie down the hall also knows the answer, let them know that as soon as possible. Maybe Debbie has time to help. This has the added benefit of allowing you to move the email out of your inbox to your tasks list or elsewhere. </li>

If any of this is appealing to you, I recommend getting a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen. Imagine cleaning up your entire life like we’ve just cleaned up your inbox, and you have a sense of what David’s system offers.

Stop being rude!

For reference:

Desktop Search Tools Below is a list of free programs that fall into the category of Desktop Search tools that I feel comfortable recommending. I have personally tested each of these, and list them in order of personal preference.

Yahoo Desktop Search Built on the superb X-1 desktop search engine, Yahoo’s offering has the added benefit of being free. Works with Outlook and Outlook Express. Index is very powerful, and can index files on your hard drive, with much flexibility. Highly recommended.

Copernic Desktop Search Very similar features to Yahoo Desktop Search. I find Yahoo’s offering slightly faster when searching, and I prefer the user interface on YDS, but Copernic has a very solid free offering with this product.

Lookout Lookout is a powerful free search plugin that resides completely within Outlook. Microsoft liked it so much, they bought the company that makes it. Microsoft has since released MSN Toolbar which has desktop search functionality, however I’m not a huge fan of that product. Lookout is still available, and well worth a look. It doesn’t handle file system indexing as well as the first two offerings, but is arguably the best email search tool for Outlook users.

Getting Things Done If I hit a nerve with you with this post, and you are interested in learning more about how to become more organized, you may wish to check out the following sites. Below are some of my favourite blogs, and if you use RSS I recommend subscribing to every one of them.

Marc Orchant’s wonderful blogs: Marc’s Outlook on Productivity

The Office Weblog

Other Favourite Blogs: Working Smart

What’s the Next Action


Slacker Manager

43 Folders

The official David Allen Getting Things Done site

34 thoughts on “If Your Inbox Has More Than a Screenful of Messages In It, You’re Rude

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  6. Steve

    Good post, I’m a piler and proud of it, in fact i even pile old im messages.

    Truth be told its also a long post which cuased my to give up, I’ll read the rest later.


  7. Marc Orchant

    Jason: Thanks for the great post (I read the whole thing) and the very kind words about my blogs. I’ll be addressing the Inbox issue in my forthcoming contribution to the More Space project at some length. You’ve introduced an entirely new way of looking at the topic and have given me some food for thought. Great stuff!

  8. Chris Maddocks

    Great post. I just wanted to add that I was a Filer until GMail offered me 1 GB of email storage. Then I developed a habit of leaving all of my email online and in my inbox (because I can!) and things have never been the same since.

    I think you’re spot on with your assessment… since I became a Piler, my reliability via email has dropped sharply.

  9. Sérgio Carvalho

    Good post, even if I disagree fundamentally. You can be a piler, and not lose any messages. You just need a good mailer, able to sort unread messages to the inbox top, and to label messages in short-lived categories (to-do, Later, Important). You just need to have a quick way to get to the next message to be answered, and to identify there are no more pending messages.

    Add vFolders to the mix: http://www.ximian.com/support/manuals/evolution_14/x2279.html And you’re a piler with automatic filing.

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  11. Jason

    A really interesting insight from Merlin Mann over at 43folders.com in his blogroll about this post: “Some good ideas here, but one defense of slow responses: the fastest answer to most email I receive each day is on the first page of a Google search. I’d guess that some “pilers” are secretly hoping some issues can be retired without intervention.”

    I have to say that he’s right, to a point. Realistically, the emailer willl eventually find another solution, if you wait long enough. Like if you never, ever respond. But for the people that you correspond with regularly, or want to correspond with regularly, my guess is that you don’t want them to learn that you’re unreliable.

  12. Glen

    Good article. It made me want to clean out my Inbox.
    I didn’t. But it made me want to.

  13. Jason

    Chris, that’s what Gmail’s archive button is for! It’s all still there, all still searchable, but if you’ve dealt with it, archive it!

  14. Jason

    Sérgio, I don’t disagree that effective sorting is crucial. In fact, I use a wonderful tool for Outlook called MailFiler that allows me to do some very effective sorting on whatever is still in my inbox.

    But my essential point is that if you leave everything in your inbox, chances are infinitely greater that something could get missed than if you reliably move things out of your inbox (even just to an archive folder, like in Gmail) as they are dealt with. Simple as that.

  15. Bren

    I ran across this post right after you posted it but didn’t have a moment for a meaningful reply. I don’t now either, but I’ll just roll with it.

    Mark Orchant and I have done a little battle over this in the past¹…I see you’re on the side of all that is good and light. I, however, embody the Dark Side of email non-filers.

    I’m quite certain that nothing falls through the cracks with me. Folks get timely replies–generally within the hour, certainly the same day. A quick answer usually resolves most notes (and when it doesn’t, ‘Bells & Whistles’ helps thread the notes), but for bigger issues I print the email and it gets processed like any other physical bit in my inbox–never gets dropped.

    And, get this, I never move stuff out of my inbox. Outlook currently has 213 emails in the inbox (they get auto-archived when they’re more than 2 weeks old) and Gmail has 1,622 in the inbox as of right now. I can sense you gagging as you read this.

    Like Sérgio, earlier, my email inbox just doesn’t carry the same mental weight as my physical inbox. My email inbox is searchable–and gmail has tags. Why spend time moving stuff when doing so doesn’t make it any easier to find something? Autofiling I do…listserv stuff doesn’t clutter up my inbox, stuff from my boss goes to a dedicated folder, so I don’t miss it. But everything else? It just doesn’t bother me. In fact, empty email inboxes give me the creeps. :-)

    ¹ http://tinyurl.com/56ndu

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  18. Marc Orchant

    Skulk back into the shadows Bren :^)

    Seriously, I love the dichotomy Jason establishes in this post but I do ten to agree that all Pilers are not necessarily rude if they have a system to make e-mails that require a response or that generate a Next Action actionable. Bren has found a way to do that. Sadly, most pilers don’t.

    All I can say is that there are any number of tools to help Pilers (and Filers) manage their e-mail, whether you adhere to “In to Empty” like Jason and I do or prefer to revel in an overstuffed Inbox like Bren.

    MailFiler, NEO Pro, ClearContext, the GTD Add-in, and others can all help you manage Inbox issues.

    All I can say Bren is that I did my Weekly Review yesterday and guess how many e-mails I have in my Inboxes (all 5 of them)? You guessed right if you said ZERO!

  19. Cameron

    Define an empty inbox ;)

    Mine has thousands of emails in it but I use Outlook 2003′s flag system to allow me to deal with them: Unread emails get deleted, actioned or flagged to be actioned later. Outlook’s standard “For follow up” search folder allows me to maintain a “mini task list” which is all the current (ie today) stuff that needs dealt with. As those flagged items are actioned the flags are updated to “completed”. Any that don’t get actioned (for whatever reason), or that do get actioned but subsequently need further work scheduled, get converted into tasks and/or calendar appointments in the usual way.

    I use Newsgator for my RSS feeds and hence posts get dealt with in the same way (although I use a different flag to identify important stuff I want to read separately from actions that need immediate attention).

    I can triage 40 or 50 mails in moments, deleting the junk, flagging the actions etc and then as I subsequently action them, they are flagged as complete (or find their way onto my task list from whence they are scheduled and dealt with as per normal) I can find almost anything quickly using a combination of Outlook’s search/filter/sort tools and LookOut.

    My inbox has thousands of items in it but I don’t think I’m rude, and like Marc Orchant I have zero items needing to be dealt with in my inbox.

    So am I a Filer or a Piler? ;)

  20. Ed Learned

    The one thing we disagree on here is that all emails deserve a response. I look at email and voice mail in a similar manner. If they are from someone that I have a relationship with (business, personal, etc.) they absolutly deserve a response. If they are unsolicited, they MAY get a response and they may not. One of the most freeing revelations to me was that I don’t have to respond to everything.

  21. Jason

    I think Marc best describes my feeling on the matter – Pilers are not all necessarily rude, but in my experience those people that I have working relationships with that I tend not to be able to rely on for email communication are all pilers. I’m not saying that Bren or Cameron are rude; they have obviously figured out a system that works. My point is that many pilers are that simply because they can’t be bothered to formulate and work a system to ensure they are reliable. For me, it’s much easier to see an empty inbox and know that I’ve handled everything. For some of you productivity wizards, you may not need that, but I would venture to guess that most ‘mere mortals’ could infinitely improve their reliability with respect to email communication if they adopted some form of Filing habit.

    And Ed, your point is very well taken. I’m primarily referring to email that we can assume deserves a response (that which comes from someone with whom a relationship already exists). I completely agree with your point that it is freeing to realize that not everything requires a response.

    Thanks for the comments!

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  23. Des

    Hi Jason

    Nice post. I like your simple filing method, and can see a lot of merit in it if you’re using desktop search tools. I personally like Copernic, and use this extensively.

    One problem I find is that my Thunderbird mail is not indexed, and neither is mail stored on IMAP servers.

    At work I use Lotus Note, and that has always had a great searching tool, so that makes life easy.



  24. Chris

    This is bunk! All the “filers” I know use folders to respond to things at a later date. Sometimes, this can be up to a week, or never. Because they don’t check all the folders they have. If I have a full inbox, I can methodically go through each mail one by one, if only to make new email notifcations actually meaningful (I can’t spot the difference between 23 and 24 emails, but I certainly can spot the difference if I knew it was empty to begin with).

    Pilers rock, as long as they aren’t deluged. Filers are people that think they’ll get back to something but never do!

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  26. Jason

    I found this comment in my anti-comment spam’s log file, but could not determine why it was blocked. It came from IP

    This is ridiculous. The author purports to know the motives and methods of a group of people that he points out to be utterly distinct from himself. We “pilers” (I prefer “searchers”) have adapted ways of ensuring that all our important emails get read, and if appropriate, responded to. The fact that the author can’t envisage how we do this doesn’t make it true that we cannot. An email’s location in the inbox relative to another folder is not its only salient attribute. Emails can be and are marked read/unread; flagged/unflagged; and can be sorted a myriad of ways besides by date. Before calling people rude simply because they have an organizational method different from his own, I’d encourage the author to think a bit more creatively about how the “solutions” he presents can be effectively mimicked or addressed by a “piler.”

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  31. Christian Mayaud

    I think the “Filer” “Piler” is an excellent metaphor and what the dilemma I faced with email overload … I too used all the tools you recommend including GTD but it wasn’t until I began using NEO Pro that I got a firm control over all of my emails …

    The Piler vs Filer is only applicable if you are using and “individual email centric” email client (which all are except for Neo Pro) … NEO Pro (and OUtlook plugin) indexes everything so that everthing is presearched and you can now shift from individual email processing (Pile it vs File it) to a “Correspondent Centric view … in otherword I don’t look at my inbox — instead I look at my correspondents view which shows me who has a pending communication … much more natural to be talking to someone than to be processing emails … there’s nothing to pile and everything is filed for you …

    very cool and I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my 1500 emails per day without it …

    I don’t like leaving links on comments buyt you can easily google for NEO Pro and find it

  32. Jason

    Christian, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not sure I agree fully. I use NEOPro too, and although I appreciate that it allows me to see my email on a per-contact basis, it’s still valuable if not necessary to have an overview of what you have and have not yet dealt with.

  33. PSkov

    Hi All,

    In this debate I was wondering if you can help with dream I have: In Lotus Notes you can get it to ask you when you send an email whether you want it “saved” in a specific folder – or just in the “all mails folder”. This Outlook can’t. And I would love to be able to keep all received AND sent e-mail regarding say a specific customer in one folder…

    Anyone seen such an add-on ?


    PS: I’m a filer… :-)

  34. Molly

    Love NEO – email organizing software from caelo.com. It makes the inbox-to-zero process easy as pie. Honestly. Check it out.

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