No late messages: It is proper netiquette to send messages within an appropriate timeframe.
– David Chiles, internet guru and author, from The Principles of Netiquette
I used to be good about responding to email messages within the day and keeping my inbox tight and tidy. I’d spend at least once a week deleting old messages and expired e-tail advertisements, responding to messages that required more than a few minutes of time, and moving other emails to one of 59 folders I’ve created as both a cleaning-house mechanism and a way to save important or interesting information of which more than two-thirds I’ll never read. My goal after the purge was to have no more than 50 e-mails left in my inbox that were still timely, needed action, or needed more thought for a response.
This system worked well for many years – even as I started getting more emails and I got busier with work and life in general. I realized that I needed to add to my purging strategy. So I unsubscribed from daily e-newsletters I was receiving. If I wasn’t going to read them within the next couple of days, I wasn’t going to read them period. This exercise in unsubscribing also removed the slight anxiety I experienced when the daily e-newsletters piled up and I felt like the mythical Sisyphus. Why bother encouraging carpal tunnel syndrome with the finger constantly hitting the delete button? Interestingly enough, I didn’t miss those e-newsletters (okay, it’s because I’m too busy to remember I used to get them and read them every day). I delete the political and charitable solicitations – well, most of them.
Next up was deleting forwarded articles or videos from family and friends that I knew – even if I wanted to read/see them – would just sit in my inbox. If I didn’t read that article or watch that video within two weeks, it either went into the Bermuda Triangle set of folders to be viewed in my dreams or it went to trash.
But then the elections came and a group of us parents began a couple of e-mail threads that became unwieldy. Okay, I admit that I was an active participant in this thread. Lunafest planning has started, so that thread is active and growing. I’m a member of the high school’s Investing in Academic Excellence, so I get those emails. I try to skim the emails of the high school and elementary school weekly updates for events I need to attend or pertinent information I need to act on.
I file e-bill receipts and schedule e-payments upon receiving the e-reminders, keep track of the kids’ and my health-related appointments and test results, and file monthly updates on the various memberships I belong to, such as airlines, hotels, beauty, and fashion. I have to keep up with the band, soccer, baseball notices, the horseback riding lesson back-and-forth correspondences nailing down the monthly dates, the drama rehearsal and performances dates, and the flamenco lesson reminders, which I need! I want to congratulate a colleague on a promotion when LinkedIn alerts me, but then I have to find the sheet that tells me what my login is for LinkedIn. Since I donate to causes, suddenly I’m getting daily updates from many worthy organizations. On their own, I’m touched to read the latest good news. Collectively, it’s overwhelming. I only need the New Yorker Store once a year to order my desk calendar, but then if I unsubscribe I’ll miss out on that discount that they send out in November. I tried unsubscribing to another site, but since I have a membership, the site refuses my request. Now that we’re Oakland A’s season ticket holders for next year, I get daily e-mails for daily specials. I’ve gotten into the habit of deleting all these emails when they come in, but clearly I haven’t done it on the spot, as my inbox hit 600 emails and climbing this past week.
I made feeble attempts to carve out time to go through my inbox, but after 15 minutes in and what felt at first like progress, I only deleted or filed 100 of those emails. I stopped that futile exercise because it was too demoralizing. Serious purging with real results requires a long night or part of a weekend. It would not be tonight.
One of the email time-suck problems I’ve come across is courtesy of Yahoo. I’d like to survey people who have Yahoo email accounts to find out who likes the “new” system of automatically linking emails from the same thread. Somebody thought it was brilliant to do that for us. But all it does is confuse users on so many levels. One of the reasons I don’t like the automatic threading of emails is that you can delete the whole thread – all 69 emails – and when someone responds, you’ve got 70 emails back in your inbox. Maddening. If you cut and paste from that email thread and start a new message to another person, Yahoo throws it into the same thread. Try going back to that one message in the thread of 70 and responding to that one message; the system seemingly randomly sends you to the original email or one of the emails from the original thread. It’s like being in email purgatory. I just want to respond to this person and this message, you scream at your laptop.
Or sometimes you think you sent the email and it’s sitting in your draft box. I had entered a fiction contest at the end of October and forgot to include a one-sentence description of my novel. The administrator kindly sent me an email telling me to send the missing one-liner with a header identifying the number of my submission ASAP. However, when I respond to the message, yahoo would not allow me to change the subject header. I created about four different emails via cutting and pasting before finally being able to send it off. This was last week. Today, I found it in my draft box. Horrified that I had not only bungled my submission but rudely never responded, never sent what was asked of me, I reached out to the administrator, thinking in the back of my head that I was sure I had sent successfully and she had thanked me. But I could not find that email in the thread. Two weeks past the deadline, I sent another email with the right information and subject header, and she responded within hours that she got it. Got it as in I got it last week and all was well, so why are you bothering me again? She didn’t say anything beyond “got it.” I couldn’t help but clog up her inbox by sending another email saying that I apologized for being so yahoo.
Yes, I realize that I’m part of the problem, thanks, Yahoo. Email is a great tool for communicating with such immediacy (I won’t even touch texting here) and automatically receiving valuable information. Yes, I do want to continue hearing from family and friends; it’s the personal correspondence I look forward to. But I’m not alone in suffering from a nervous breakdown over the amount of email that fills my inbox – ads, solicitations, surveys, newsletters, et al. Purge, unsubscribe, file away. Do them all. But the key is you have to carve out more than an hour to keep up and not feel overwhelmed by email. Put on your favorite Pandora radio station and have at it. Email is a reality of our modern life. Now if only Yahoo would return to its old ways… And by the way, it is e-mail or email?