Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Good, Easy Email Email may not be the most glamorous part of the Internet, but it's probably the most important. Back when Jeff and Donna was putting together the Palm Pilot, the average Silicon Valley exec was getting maybe 3-4 emails a day. I'm not a exec, but I now get about 200-500 emails a day, which is pretty common for tech folks. My average business school colleague gets 30-40 a day and feels overwhelmed by that.

When normal people start getting email overload, they just unplug, and limit their use of the medium. By contrast, tech folks come up with complicated schemes involving HTML, mediating interfaces, web based personal message spaces etc. etc. etc.

In my experience, more technology is rarely a solution to too much technology. Adding extra layers that complicate email will just make it less flexible, less powerful, and less easy to use. This is why HTML email is bad, and Outlook, with its poor support of plaintext, makes email less useful.

A while ago I wrote how Mark Hurst's Good Easy, a system of five simple applications working together, combines the power of Unix and the ease-of-use of a GUI to create a simple and powerful way to work over a network. In this context, the email client just streams bits in and out of the computer. It is not a repository for information, and therefore should be kept empty.

Here's how to empty your inbox (and keep it empty)

1. Put the oldest, crustiest emails at the top. This will help you remember to get rid of them.
2. Delete all spam (without opening it).
3. Go through all personal messages from friends and family (the most important emails). Read them, enjoy them, delete them. If you must keep them, copy and paste the text into a text editor and save it in your hard disk as "'initials of sender' 'date' 'keywords'".

4. Your inbox now contains email of middling importance only. Sequentially engage each email to remove it from the inbox:

- If the email is a to-do item or appointment, copy and paste it as a to-do or appointment into your calender program. To-do items should be tied to specific days, so Outlook users are out of luck. Delete email in inbox

- If email is a item of correspondence tied to a project, save it in the folder for that project as " ". Delete email in inbox.

- If the email is reoccurring (newsletter, list), read the email and enjoy it if you have time, else delete it. You'll be getting a new one tomorrow anyway.

5. Continue until your inbox is empty, and keep it that way.

Why this works

- Storing bits in an email client splits your file system, making it harder to find anything. By storing everything on the hard disc, a search (using "finder" on Macs, and whatever on PCs) can look through all your data at once.

- A cluttered inbox makes email useless. It's impossible to find, act on, or reference workflow if it's buried under 200 other emails.

- Too much email is a pointer to over-extension in other parts of life. Unsubscribe to newsletters you never read, get off useless lists, and involve yourself with fewer projects.

Good email habits and non-intrusive technology that lets people manipulate their digital information directly makes it pretty easy to handle about 500 emails a day, more than enough for most.
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