I’ve been traveling a lot over the last couple of months. New Orleans, NYC, Denver, Los Angeles and Singapore (pictures to follow). That has meant a lot of time out of the office, working from wherever I could get a cell or wifi signal to keep up with everything.

Right now that means a lot of email. I have three accounts that I check regularly (@rightside.co, @name.com and @gmail.com) collectively bombarding me with a couple hundred emails a day of reports, charts, blogs, newsletters, alerts and occasionally an actual message. Fortunately all my main accounts are Gmail based so I can get to them anywhere, and up until now I thought I did a pretty good job of staying on top of things.

At least I thought so before Singapore. The ICANN meeting there meant a 18 hour (each way) trip, passing through Tokyo Narita. No wi-fi on the plane, economy class seating. It was just impossible to pull out my laptop for “serious” work so I was left flipping through whatever had been synced up with my tablet and phone and that’s what really demonstrated to me I was managing my Gmail accounts all wrong.

Coming from years at Microsoft and Sony, I’d been indoctrinated into the world of Exchange and Outlook. Email was something you sent, received and especially organized. Folders became buckets for finding the thing you thought you might need sometime in the future when you couldn’t find it any other way depending on which place you’d put it into. So when I adopted Gmail for my personal account and used Google Apps accounts for work I just moved the same process over. I took full advantage of Gmail’s Label feature which when viewed over IMAP in Outlook or Mac Mail become folders. Mail comes in, mail gets moved. Touching every single email and collating it into a folder became the goal. “Inbox zero” wasn’t just about replying and deleting. It was about how quickly I could file things into the right box. No matter how efficient I thought I was at this, or how many folders I created or deleted to hold all that old email my Inbox, strangely enough, stayed full.

Fighting with the Android and iOS clients on the long, disconnected flights finally drove home to me that Labels and Folders were just creating more work than they were worth. Getting to a folder view on a mobile mail client meant a menu tap or exit out of a unified Inbox, then thumb scrolling down and down to find the just the right folder. In the Gmail app it still meant find the “Change Labels” option and scrolling down an ever longer list of labels all designed to make my life easier “later” when I might need that email again. Tap, scroll, tap again. Back, tap, Inbox, scroll, read, tap, scroll, tap to file, back, ad nauseum.

I was fighting the wrong battle. Most of my time was spent dealing with information NOW, not later. It was the fear of losing something that kept me trying to organize all that old mail even though I rarely, if ever, reopened those old folders. Why was I wasting time today to save time to organize something I might never even need? Why was I spending precious time organizing information when Google had already spent billions building tools to do it for me?

Just after I returned I sat in another hotel room (it was a busy travel month) and removed every label from my accounts. No more trying to sort emails by business partner or vendor, project or team. No more ever growing list of event labels, release labels or competitor labels. No filters. No more Thunderbird, Mac Mail or Outlook. Just Gmail in all it’s web based glory and no folders beyond Inbox, Sent, Archived and Trash. I gave up my fight for “organization” and threw myself into the simplicity of Read, Archive or Delete. Google is a search company an I embraced it completely.

I became unlabeled.

Now when I receive an email I have just three options upon reading it. I can Delete it and never worry about it again. I can Reply to it. I can simply Archive it knowing Gmail search will find whatever I need without me having to impose order on the chaos. Add a few Google Labs gadgets to email (Send & Archive is a favorite) and now I can power through email with fewer options, but more speed in doing so. Reply, Delete or Archive. That’s it.

Abandoning such an ingrained folder habit wasn’t without some trepidation on my part. One thing I worried about was my ability to find, for example, receipts that had been emailed to me over the last year as I finished my taxes. In previous years there had always been a “tax” or “receipt” label that I’d taken the time to carefully apply so I can retrieve each one as I added up deductions. Would I be able to find everything easily or be desperately digging at the 11th hour?

Finding every single email was incredibly easily, so much so that I can’t imagine every going back to the old way of managing email. Many people don’t realize, and I discovered by doing, that Gmail has pretty advanced search functions for finding emails not only by sender or subject, but within date ranges or even by what words aren’t included. Once you master how to structure the search terms it’s super easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. You’ll still page through the results to find the exact email you want, but I was doing that anyway in the old folder system.

Getting rid of folders and trusting search may not be for everyone. For the volume of email I’m dealing with it’s been a huge benefit to my productivity and sanity.

Published by Steve Banfield

Kentucky born, Seattle based. Entrepreneur. Team Builder. Photographer.

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