E-mail is a mixed blessing. When used appropriately, it saves time and paper and increases efficiency in the workplace. Unfortunately, as our lives get busier and our e-mail inboxes get fuller, e-mail is becoming an untamed monster.
In this article, we discuss various tools and strategies to reclaim lost e-mail productivity by reducing the volume of unsolicited e-mail (“spam”), following e-mail etiquette to eliminate unnecessary messaging, and managing and organizing our e-mail more effectively. What we present is as relevant for readers who use personal e-mail clients such as Hotmail, Gmail, YahooMail, and AOLMail as it is for those who use e-mail at work via programs such as Microsoft Outlook and IBM Lotus Notes.
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
The first e-mail messages were sent in the early 1960s, but they could be sent only to users of a single computer. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson programmed and sent the first e-mail message from one computer to another over a network. To separate the name of the user from that of the computer, he used the “@” sign. E-mail at that time could accommodate plain text only—ie, no attachments, no images.1
E-mail has come a long way from these humble beginnings to become one of the most heavily used aspects of the Internet. Its popularity stems mainly from its simplicity and efficiency in facilitating asynchronous communication. However, e-mail is fast becoming too successful, leading to overload for those who use it.
WHAT’S IN YOUR IN-BOX?
Incoming e-mail messages can be classified into the following categories:
- Messages that directly concern you or your work
- Copies of messages indirectly related to your work, sent to you to “keep you in the loop”
- Notices of events or meetings
- Messages acknowledging the receipt of e-mail messages that you sent
- Messages from organizations that you have some relationship with and that you have given your e-mail address to, such as professional organizations, mailing lists (listservs), retailers, service providers, or information providers
- Messages from friends, family, and colleagues that contain non-work-related information, such as jokes, news stories, and links to interesting Web sites
- Unsolicited messages from unknown senders (eg, online retailers, scam artists) with whom you have no relationship, often trying to sell you a product or service or to trick you into giving up information
- Unsolicited messages from senders you know but may not want to get messages from.
E-MAIL OVERLOAD CONSUMES TIME, ADDS STRESS
Each of these types of messages has to be handled in a specific manner. Thus, when a person gets dozens of these messages a day, it can significantly add to the workload. This problem was recognized as early as 1996, when Whittaker and Sidner2 coined the term “e-mail overload” and systematically studied it for the first time. Bellotti and others3 at the Palo Alto Research Lab concluded that it is not just the volume of the e-mail but the collaborative quality of e-mail task management and project management that leads to overload. Thus, the e-mail in-box requires not just a filing cabinet to sort the messages but a mechanism to support collaboration and project management.3
Studies show that e-mail overload causes people to work 1 to 2 extra hours a day, either at work or when they get home. Despite these issues, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported in 2002 that more than half the Americans surveyed who use e-mail at work thought it was “essential to their work.”4 However, many also reported that e-mail has been distracting, has caused misunderstandings, and has added a new source of stress to their lives. Professionals have the added burden of e-mail being treated as a medicolegal document that can be discoverable and, hence, used as legal evidence.
No wonder, then, that many e-mail providers include tools to manage the flow and to organize both the wanted and unwanted e-mail messages. However, as with many tools, there are effective ways to use them.
CANNING THE SPAM: DECREASING UNWANTED MESSAGES
Spam is unsolicited e-mail, often of a commercial nature, sent indiscriminately to multiple mailing lists, individuals, or newsgroups. It is the Internet version of junk mail. An estimated 12 billion spam messages are sent every day, accounting for 40% to 60% of all e-mail messages.5
Spam takes up time and space and is an intrusion of privacy. In addition, it has financial costs to organizations. By one estimate, an organization with 1,000 employees loses over $200,000 a year in productivity due to spam.6
The reason spam is so widespread is that it is very cheap and profitable for the spammer. It costs next to nothing to send, and getting even 100 responses from 10 million messages sent is enough to turn a profit!6
Unfortunately, the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act7 of 2003 had a mixed impact on limiting the volume of spam,8 and may have trumped state laws that were already in place to regulate spam.
To decrease the amount of spam you receive in your daily e-mail, it helps to understand that spam has three steps: