Taming the In-Box Beast

News Analysis: If you can't live without e-mail, your only hope to stay sane is to manage it effectively.

In 2006, the pop-techno musician Moby told everyone he knew that hed decided to stop using e-mail.

Of course, he did this over e-mail, and being a celebrity, this e-mail eventually made it to a few entertainment news sites. All had a good laugh when he confessed that his experiment had failed a few months later.

Surely, however, everyone has met someone with such lofty and dramatic communications ambitions before, from declaring e-mail bankruptcy—deleting the entire contents of ones in-box, in effect, throwing ones hands in up in the air—to the "zero e-mail Fridays" policy in some divisions at Intel, an attack on the preference to use e-mail rather than walk across the aisle and talk to ones co-worker.

But many of these so-called cures fly in the face of what e-mail is all about: speedy and effective communication. The fact is that everyone hates e-mail, but nobody can live without it. This leaves users with the option of embracing melodramatic tactics that probably do more to express frustration around communication overload than deal with the actual problem or learning some coping strategies.


Fortunately, tools abound. In his book, "Bit Literacy," Mark Hurst, creator of Creative Good, a user experience consulting firm, describes techniques to manage e-mail, to-dos and the general media diet that stresses users with the hope that by working more productively, people will get to live fuller lives outside of work.

"Most users have no idea that they need to learn new skills, since they already know how to use the computer. For a long time, users have only been taught computer literacy, the set of common actions in software: clicking buttons, selecting menus, opening and closing files. These skills were sufficient in the pre- Internet world of the 1980s, when computers were mostly used as glorified typewriters," writes Hurst in his book.

"Millions of technology users are trying to survive in the new world of bits [of electronic data] with only the skills of computer literacy. They know how to send an e-mail and print a document, but theyre powerless against the avalanche of incoming bits… Users are constantly buried."

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