By David Woods ([email protected])

If you feel that emails are inundating you, and you yearn for the days of the quill pen, help is at hand. In her recent book “Life hacker: 88 tech tips to turbocharge your day,” Gina Trapani somewhat paradoxically advises us to use a paper day planner instead of computerised schedules. Her rationale: it can be a great change of pace to wield a pen instead of a mouse. Another of her tips is tougher: “empty your email and keep it empty.”
Mike Song, author of “Hamster revolution: how to manage your email before it manages you,” says: “Certain high-volume users can’t quite help the amount of email they get, but diverting email by creating folders that route lower priority emails to pre-designated folders will help minimise distractions.” For example, he says, “If I don’t want to be interrupted by emails from some organisation that I belong to, I can set it to where those emails will automatically re-route into a folder I’ve designated for that.”

Song believes that most of us receive much more email that we can actually process, and this is fed by mass emails sent to hundreds, or often thousands, of people at once. While one solution to the email deluge is to stop sending so many yourself; another is to make phone calls instead of a quick note. But even phoning can be an endless circuit of voicemails and missed messages, so agree on a mutually agreed-upon time for your call.

Busy computer consultant Jonathan Coopersmith agrees. “My key to managing emails is to set aside a time of day for them. In other words, I schedule them as I would a meeting or a conference call.” He gives an example: “I’ll check my email only at a few predetermined times each day… and then spend 30 minutes sorting, managing, and sending a few quick responses to get them out of the way. For the messages that need more attention, I look at that like scheduling meetings, returning phone calls, or writing letters – some I delegate; others I need to schedule for a later time.”

As Mike Musgrove reports in the Washington Post: “The supposed convenience of electronic mail, like so many other innovations of technology, has become too much for some people. Swamped by an unmanageable number of messages – the volume of email traffic has nearly doubled in the past two years to around six trillion business emails sent in 2006, according to the research firm DYS Analytics – and plagued by annoying spam and viruses, some users are crying ‘Enough.’”

Musgrove says that email overload gives many people the sense that their work is never done, so some people are moving back to the telephone. He quotes Stanford University technology professor Lawrence Lessig as saying that he declared “email bankruptcy” a few years ago after being deluged by thousands of e-messages, noting that “I eventually got to be so far behind that I was either going to spend all my time answering emails or I was going to do my job.” Thereafter, his correspondents received an email saying “Dear person who sent me a yet-unanswered email; I apologise, but I am declaring email bankruptcy.”
One often hears the question: “How did we all manage before emails, cell phones, PDAs, Blackberrys, and laptops?” The answer: we managed to swim along quite nicely, thank you. And with relatively little risk of drowning. But we’re in choppier waters today… and anything we can do to keep afloat is welcome.