IBM researchers have found that email users who spend time putting their messages in folders are no more successful at "re-finding" them than users who simply let their inboxes grow.
Results of the study, 'Am I wasting my time organizing email?', were first reported by MIT's Technology Review.
The study [pdf] aimed to compare "the success of preparatory vs. opportunistic retrieval" of emails.
Preparatory organisation characterised users who "deliberately create manual folder structures or tags that anticipate the context of retrieval.
"Such preparation contrasts with opportunistic management that shifts the burden to the time of retrieval," the study noted.
Researchers gave 345 email users access to an email client that supported a variety of email management techniques, including folders, search, tagging and threading of messages.
The users made 85,000 attempts to find old messages over the course of the study.
The study found that users who sorted their emails into folders took "marginally longer" to discover them than those who simply tried searching their huge inbox.
"More important is how often people successfully find the target message," the researchers noted.
"We expected high filers to be more successful given their investment in preparing materials for retrieval.
"Contrary to our expectations, high filers were no more successful at finding messages than low filers."
The researchers said study data supported opportunistic access. "People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviours do not improve retrieval success."
The study recommended that email client developers offer "different features or mailbox views" that were optimised for the different ways that users worked with email.