Email is Not a Document Management Tool

clippy

When was the last time you sent a document to someone via email, or frantically searched your inbox for a file someone had previously sent to you? If you’ve done both things recently, you’re not alone: knowledge workers habitually use email to store and transmit documents, sacrificing the accessibility, security and traceability that more modern solutions provide.

In our new series from productivity psychologist Melissa Gratias, we’ll take a look at the unproductive email habits of today’s workforce, and share suggestions for updating your approach to email.


For nine years, Katherine managed her business and personal email through a Hotmail account. She liked how her attachments were readily available to her and would forward documents to herself so that her files could be centralized in her email folders. Then, her world was rocked. Her organization moved all employees to Gmail and Katherine’s love affair with Hotmail was no more. But what could she do with all of her documents?

As a productivity psychologist who helps people be more effective at work, email management is a topic I tackle daily with clients like Katherine. And, there are two functions in every email program that I wish I could remove, or at least hide: (1) Reply All, and (2) Attach File. I am convinced that Reply All will eventually cause a zombie apocalypse. I am equally convinced that Attach File is the current-day equivalent of Trouble with Tribbles.

Attaching documents to emails for purposes of collaboration and information-sharing was an innovation when it began. The paperclip was our friend! Remember the little Windows paperclip that did backflips and had eyes? His cousin lived in Outlook and existed to help us transmit document drafts to our bosses, contracts to our clients, and inspirational messages to unsuspecting family members. Isn’t it ironic that the feature of email more responsible for the paperless revolution than anything else is iconized with a paperclip?

The paperclip is no longer your friend.

With shared servers and cloud-based storage tools like Box and Dropbox, attaching files to emails is rarely necessary any more. However, the average information worker still receives six attachments every day.

So, in addition to hard drives, servers, portable storage, cloud storage, and other document collaboration tools, we now have our electronic files saved as attachments to emails. Outlook and Google Mail have become another document storage location. The problem with this is that scattering our electronic files across these various locations leads to version control problems, file duplication, and disorganization.

Electronic information needs to be consolidated as much as possible, and the first file storage option to eliminate is your email system. Email is for managing correspondence, not documents, anyway. Had Katherine not stored so many documents in Hotmail, she would have had a much easier transition to Gmail.

Three Steps to Break the Paperclip Habit
1. Choose a default location where you will save the vast majority of your electronic files. This should be a place that is accessible, secure, and allows you to share documents without attaching them to emails.
2. Pretend the paperclip does not exist. Learn how to hyperlink to files rather than attaching them. Create collaboration workflows in Nitro Cloud. Do whatever it takes to reduce your reliance on the paperclip.
3. Go through your old emails. Detach and save needed documents into your default save location.

Email is not a document management solution. If you are only constructing an email to attach a document, there are better ways. Moreover, as Katherine learned, email is the last place you want to choose for your default file location. Especially if it’s Hotmail, right?