Tagged With email overload

Predicting the future is near impossible -- but that doesn‘t stop us all from having a red hot go. Human beings have been predicting the future since the beginning of history and the results range from the hilarious to the downright uncanny.

One thing all future predictions have in common: they‘re rooted in our current understanding of how the world works. It‘s difficult to escape that mindset. We have no idea how technology will evolve, so our ideas are connected to the technology of today.

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Nothing sullies the effect of a much-needed vacation like an overflowing inbox when you return to reality. For PhD student danah boyd, who is about to undergo the dissertation filing process, that's a burden that's not worth shouldering.

For those who are unaware of my approach to vacation... I believe that email eradicates any benefits gained from taking a vacation by collecting mold and spitting it back out at you the moment you return. As such, I've trained my beloved INBOX to reject all email during vacation. The effect is very simple. You cannot put anything in my queue while I'm away (however lovingly you intend it) and I come home to a clean INBOX. Don't worry... if you forget, you'll get a nice note from my INBOX telling you to shove off, respect danah's deeply needed vacation time, and try again after January 19.

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Looking at aggregate data of 3,000 email accounts over a three month period, researchers at Northwestern University say that emails are responded to randomly, but the volume of sent mail follows predictable patterns. Namely, late at night on the weekends it's much less likely you'll receive any reply, for the obvious reasons — sleep and time off from work on weekends. The study suggests that the best time to contact someone when looking for a timely response, such as Monday morning, and can help network administrators plan for high-volume periods. Connectivity at home is better than it was when the data was recorded, but is it just me or do you actively avoid email outside of business hours as well?

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Philipp Lenssen, who's normally blogging about Google products and developments, sent a single question to workers at some of the country's top tech firms on how they deal with all the email, feeds, voicemail, and other clatter clamoring for their attention. The answers are informative and, in some cases, pretty surprising. Elinor Mills, reporter at CNET, talks about her reasonable "triage" approach:

I scan email and see what needs immediate attention, set aside things that can wait and then go back to them in order of importance, hoping that none of them expires in the meantime ... I scan the RSS and iGoogle headlines several times a day. It is overwhelming the amount of information that gets thrust at you every day all day, especially in the daily news business. I also make a lot of lists of ideas to pursue and stories I'm working on to try to stay on top of it.

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The first message one could consider email was sent more than 30 years ago, and that's probably when people began associating angst and uncertainty with the words "Inbox" and "unread messages." The tools available to read and send emails have advanced considerably since then, but what you actually do with all that chatter, without eating up entire days of work time, is up to you. Luckily, we've covered a wealth of filtering and processing methods and software tweaks that make email less stressful and time-consuming over the years, and a list of our top 10 productive email boosters is after the jump.

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Blogger Darren Rowse finally got fed up with multiple inboxes stuffed with thousands of unprocessed email messages and took a day to clear them out. First he consolidated five accounts into a single Gmail inbox. Then he unsubscribed from newsletters he didn't read, put some heavy-duty filters into place, and topped it all off with a heavy lean on the Archive button. Not bad for a Sunday morning's work.

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David Allen, author of Getting Things Done and inspiration for a lot of posts 'round these parts, gives away a free four-page PDF at his website that covers his basic principals for keeping email organised. Getting specific without going too in-depth, he explains the "two minute rule," why action-able emails should be kept separate from others, and why creating your own system—such as Gina's modified "Trusted Trio". Great reading for GTD neophytes, and a good brush-up for the rest of us.

Getting Email Under Control

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Blogger Chris Brogan has finally gotten his email inbox down to zero messages, and shares his tips on how to get there. Using a combination of an archive folder, calendaring software, project tracking software, and an improved file structure, Chris handles all his inbound email with two core processes: sorting email as it arrives and reviewing his to-do list regularly. (He uses previously mentioned Things to manage his tasks and projects.) Chris says this method only works if you're consistently reviewing your to-do items and email:

This will all break down fast if I don't focus on Things as my "go to place" to see what needs doing. And if I don't make THAT the focus of my day while working on projects, and slip back into hounding my inbox, the whole thing will fail.

How I Tamed My Inbox

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Blogger Dan Markovitz says that emptying your inbox isn't the solution to email overload—that figuring out the source of all those messages is. He writes:

If you really want to reduce the time you spend in email and increase the amount of time you spend on the stuff that's really important to you and your organisation, you have to understand what's coming at you. And why.

Markovitz argues that we should be asking ourselves where the bulk of our email comes from, how much of it is worthless, and what topics come up over and over again, and who sends you the least relevant messages—an interesting exercise for anyone suffering from an overloaded inbox. What's the source of most of your email on a day-to-day basis? Is it cc-happy co-workers? A chatty mailing list? Bacn? Fwd-prone pals? Let us know in the comments. Thanks, Ian!

A root cause approach to email overload

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When you finally decide you're going to empty your inbox on a regular basis, the hardest part is getting started—most likely because you're already buried under an avalanche of messages. Blogger Jason Clarke offers a sensible approach to that first, most difficult push towards Inbox Zero, and he calls it Inbox 0.5. Clarke says that you can cut down a huge pile of messages without losing an entire weekend by processing HALF the number of backed up messages you've got each day. So if you're starting with 700, reduce that to 350 the first day. If you've got 400 the next day, reduce that to 200. Rinse and repeat till you've conquered the backlog and are just maintaining an empty inbox with new mail that arrives.

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We all get them—emails that are supposed to answer a question, or advance an idea, but instead cover your screen with imposing paragraphs of filler and beg to be shoved in the "Later" bin. The Anywired work blog recommends forcing yourself to tackle those messages immediately, but by using a simple mental filter:

Scan the email until you can sum up its purpose in a sentence—for example, "They're telling me they like my portfolio and found it inspiring," or "They hate my guts because of that post I wrote." Then respond to the sentence you've defined, rather than the email as a whole.

You should, of course, also look to see who the email is from, but the "single sentence" rule is something I've been doing mentally ever since I received my first corporate email account. How do you distill long emails down to quick-response messages? Share your tips in the comments.

How to Meet and Defeat Long Emails