Getting a grip How to take control of your e-mail … and your life

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Today is the first day of the rest of my e-mail life.

After years of having an in-box besieged by everything from obscene spam to important notes from my editors to, as my mailbox fills up and my response time grows, obscene notes from my editors, I have decided that it is possible to take control and that I will take control.

My guru in this endeavor is Mark Hurst, a Web consultant whose influential e-paper “Managing Incoming E-mail” promises that “this report describes a simple method that will allow any user to cope with increasing amounts of incoming e-mail.”

Coming across these words at Hurst’s Good Experience Web site (www.goodexperience.com), I felt like Lewis and Clark did upon seeing the Pacific Ocean, but with better spelling. “Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See,” Lewis wrote in his “journal,” a kind of literary precursor to the blog.

It is Hurst’s contention that the essence of good e-mail practice lies in four simple words, which he italicizes: “Keep the in-box empty.”

“People are spending more and more time in their e-mail programs,” Hurst says in, naturally enough, an e-mail interview. “If you feel overloaded by the hundreds or thousands of e-mails in your in-box, your productivity is suffering; your stress level is higher than it should be; and you have less time for more important things like family and other relationships. If, on the other hand, you clear your in-box once a day, you can then control your bits; not the other way around.”

My in-box had reached a preposterous 1,937 messages, and my stress level was high. I was tired of repeatedly having to apologize to people for taking on the order of three weeks to respond to a simple message about a story.

I was tired of our system at work shutting me down when my in-box became as overstuffed as a real mailbox gets in the first week of December. Usually this happens for me at about 700 messages, but occasionally the system takes pity on human inefficiency and lets my number balloon up into the e-mail stratosphere.

Either way, when it happens you are barred from sending out new messages or replies until you clean out the virtual deadwood. Don’t do it, and you are left with such unpleasant alternatives as dialing people’s telephone numbers or talking to them in person. But to do it well usually takes at least an hour for an undisciplined e-mail manager like me, more if I’m trying to be careful about what I delete versus what I hang onto.

E-mail overload is unquestionably a rampant problem. Most of us, and most of our employers, have spam blockers, but they are sledgehammers trying to do a chisel’s job. My work e-mail account not long ago rejected as spam a nearly complete article I sent in from my home account; I’ll grant that it wasn’t Pulitzer material, but calling it “spam” felt harsh.

Search queries, I saw recently, are about to overtake e-mail as the No. 1 use of the Internet, but that’s because search has grown, not because e-mail has diminished.

Ancient history to teens

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And I have heard, anecdotally, that teenagers consider e-mail old school, like my generation views letter writing or, better analogy, faxing. The kids these days all use text or instant messaging, and part of me thinks the impermanence of it, its failure to build up on your computer like plaque, is a huge part of the attraction.

I can’t stand IM’ing. Talking small talk is bad enough. Typing it is torture. I actually like e-mail for its speed and immediacy combined with its encouragement of literacy.

I just need control. Under the spell of Hurst, I resolve to take action. I need to eliminate the most common problems he identifies: using the in-box as a to-do list, a calendar, a bookmarks list, a filing system and an address book.

Hurst, whose New York consulting firm is called Creative Good, also devotes a lot of time to the attempt to manage spam, because that’s what people ask about, but I am in fundamental agreement with him. It’s an essentially futile battle, and it can take more time to set up filters, etc., than to just delete the things as they come in, plus you’d miss out on the enjoyment of seeing the latest scams. I’ll let our corporate filters handle what they can of these and do the rest by hand.

As for the rest of the mail, first I empty the “deleted items” folder, of course. Then I click on the “From” field in our program, Microsoft Outlook. This organizes the messages by sender, and I can do rapid mass deletions of one of Hurst’s bugaboos, the too-many e-mail lists I’m on, from my daily bank-account update to the Daily Candy consumer-goods tip mail to the Tribune’s own e-mail story highlighter, Daywatch. When such newsletters come in, he says, first decide whether you need to hear from these folks daily, and, if not, unsubscribe. Then scan them for relevant info, either put them in an information file you’ve created (outside of your e-mail program) or delete them.

A plan

I set up a handful of storage folders with labels including “story ideas,” “blog ideas” and “curiosities.” The e-mails I want to save I simply drag into one of these files, where they won’t count against my Outlook allotment.

“Use the in-box for its only appropriate purpose,” Hurst writes, “storing e-mails temporarily before they are read, possibly filed and (always) deleted.”

For items that require action, I copy the relevant information into the to-do list I’ve added into my Google Desktop program, a to-do list I prefer to the one in Outlook. At his site, Hurst offers his own to-do program that he considers better than sliced bread, partly because it works seamlessly with e-mail, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet. One piece of good advice: If you can accomplish a “to-do” in less than two minutes, do so right away because these items, of course, can pile up like e-mail.

E-mails containing addresses of appointments I turn into events on the Outlook calendar or entries in the Outlook address book.

“An in-box with hundreds of messages can be cleaned out in this way in an hour or two of focused work,” he writes, and it’s true. I’m down to 42 messages in about 90 minutes.

“Thereafter, the in-box can be cleaned daily with a few minutes’ work,” Hurst continues.

I get back to work, taking particular satisfaction in deleting the messages my new guru sent me in relation to this story. Forty-one and counting.

I feel naked without a full in-box but also strangely elated, not unlike a man staring for the first time at a long-sought ocean. Just don’t ask me to deal with all the stuff I’ve placed into those storage folders.

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