For twenty years now, I’ve sorted my email. I painstakingly classify each incoming message, hoping that my tags will help me find it again later. If folders and cabinets keep paper documents organized, I tell myself, then wouldn’t digital folders help me stay on top of email?
The answer, of course, is “No.” Email folders (and the Gmail equivalent, labels) are a waste of time.
I rarely—if ever—browse archived emails by label. If a message isn’t in my inbox, I use search to track it down, relying on the automatically-generated index that’s standard to every email modern client. Can I recall even one unique word from the message I’m hunting? If so, search retrieves the thread instantly. If not, metadata can help filter down the results—e.g. was there an attachment? Who sent the email? When? Search lets you leverage whatever bits of information you can remember. I’ve grown so used to this approach that I’ve memorized multiple search operators in both Gmail and Outlook.
It’s not just that I labels feel unnecessary; they actually undermine productivity. My commitment to tagging adds friction to every inbox triage. Too often, I leave emails sitting in my inbox simply because I’m too lazy or too busy to label them. Before I know it, dozens of threads have piled up. Automatic filters can help—but setting them up feels like another tedious chore.
A final reason I resent email labels? They limit my email client options. The slickest, most innovative email apps—like Microsoft’s Outlook, or Dropbox’s Mailbox—don’t support Gmail’s proprietary tagging system. I miss out on helpful features like one-swipe archive and email “snoozing.” Even Apple’s vanilla (but solid) Mail.app offers limited label support. I’m stuck with Gmail’s clunky—but label-compatible—official app.
I want to break free. I’m dropping labels, cold turkey, for the next few weeks. I won’t delete my tagging hierarchy just yet. But rather than classify each email as it comes in, I’ll either archive it, delete it, create a to-do task, or delegate that item to someone else. You know, just like Uncle Merlin says. What I won’t do is add a tag or move the message into a folder.
Will I relapse and binge on labels again? Or will I attain a new level of email enlightenment? I’ll report back in a few weeks.