Whether it’s steady trickle of daily e-mails or the hundreds of messages streaming in during your vacation, hitting the reset button on your inbox may seem like the easiest way to cope with the digital deluge – even if the freedom is fleeting.
In a recent New York Times article, columnist Nick Bilton wrote of his decision to delete all of his 46,315 unread e-mails, starting the new year with an empty inbox.
“I think it stems from this ability to have access to technology anywhere and any time,” said Jui Ramaprasad, assistant professor, information systems at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.
“All of these companies we interact with have mobile applications or have social media handles they want you to follow them on. And you just do it one at a time and all of a sudden, it ends up with complete information overload with you, and then you try to implement all these filters.
“Facebook has filters, Twitter has lists, you have filters in your e-mail, but it still becomes overwhelming just to manage that.”
Yet while declaring e-mail bankruptcy may offer momentary respite from the flurry of messages, there’s little to stem the inevitable tide of new ones filtering in.
“By purging everything, they’re just going to get in this continuous loop of overwhelm, and it will never go away unless they change their approach and outlook of how they deal with e-mail,” said Ottawa-based productivity consultant Valeri Hall Little of Intandem Business Efficiency.
Rather than responding to the urge to hit delete all, experts suggest finding more efficient ways to organize and manage the influx.
“I think it’s important to treat one’s inbox as your in-basket. You’ll never get it to zero. That’s impossible,” said Christina Cavanagh, author of Managing Your E-mail: Thinking Outside the Inbox.
Ms. Cavanagh said the inbox should be treated as a central control to assess which e-mails can be dealt with in a few minutes and which can be filed for handling later.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Ms. Hall Little, who said individuals should change their mindset about managing their inbox to “processing” rather than checking e-mails. She coaches clients to create three processing folders: action (for tasks that require more than two minutes); reading (for newsletters); and pending (messages that require a response.)
“You wouldn’t go to the mailbox in your house every few minutes and check what’s there, maybe open a couple and just shove it back in there and walk away and come back in. … You should think of your digital inbox the same way,” Ms. Hall Little said.
“It’s not a repository to just check things and close things. … It is a place that you’re going to process your e-mail.”
Ms. Cavanagh also recommended devoting specific times during the day to checking messages, including those on hand-held devices.
“I’m a smartphone user – I couldn’t live without one. And I have four different e-mail accounts on it. But that doesn’t mean to say that I’m constantly checking all the time,” she said.
“It’s a question of being able to control your responses to things. It’s not a question of an e-mail gets sent and you have to immediately react. And I think that’s where the acceleration of technology has gotten us to that level.”
Another strategy adopted by some who find themselves overburdened is to indicate in their e-mail signature that they only check their messages periodically during the day – a signal to others that they shouldn’t expect an immediate response, said Anne Bergen of the University of Guelph.
“I think that if people do want to change how they manage their e-mail, it fits into their whole task management process. They need to think about it holistically and not think about e-mail as a separate thing,” said Ms. Bergen, knowledge mobilization co-ordinator with the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship.
Ms. Bergen said she also strongly advocates that people turn off phone-based notifications once they’ve unplugged at home.
“Having that go all night long can be an incredible drain on people and it makes you resent e-mail and it’s not great in terms of work-life balance.”
It’s not just managing existing messages that can be problematic, but the exchange of routine e-mails that can compound the clutter.
“The other thing I find clogs inboxes – and this could be a bit controversial – is the ‘Thanks, I got it’ or ‘Okay’ – the acknowledgment e-mail,” Ms. Cavanagh said. “I think people need to think twice before sending these, because again, you start getting a dozen or 20 of these every day – it just takes more time to have to delete and get rid of it.
“If we send less e-mail, we get less e-mail. It seems counterintuitive but it’s really true,” she added. “It’s the same thing with things like social media as well: The less that you’re connected to people out there and you’re only following and connecting to people that matter to you, the net becomes smaller and a little more manageable.”
Some are applying the starting from scratch mantra to their social media accounts.
As a blogger and Internet entrepreneur, Paul Piotrowski opted to mirror the practice used by many Internet marketers and professionals to boost their Twitter follower tally: Following others in hopes of a follow-back.
“It basically made Twitter useless because I would click on my Twitter feed and I would scroll down the top 10 list of people that were posting, and by the time I got the 10th one, I already had 120 new updates,” recalled the Vancouver-based Mr. Piotrowski who blogs at RealityMorph.com. “It drowned out the important stuff of the people I actually did want to follow. …
“I said: ‘Forget this, I’m going to delete everybody and start from scratch and I’m only going to follow people that I want to listen to their feed, to their tweets. If that means five people or 10 people or 15 people or 100 people, that’s great; but I’m not going to follow 500 people or 5,000 people because they followed me.”
E-mail, on the other hand, Mr. Piotrowski finds much easier to deal with, using Microsoft Outlook to create rule sets which place certain e-mails into particular folders.
“I can create an e-mail account, subscribe to certain e-mail lists, I can create a folder that I call ‘not urgent’ or something. And if people are sending me stuff that I don’t recognize … I can just put it into that folder automatically,” he said. “I can apply rules to how that stuff is sorted.”
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