The Email Diet


by Samuel Greengard

My recent posts about the growing glut of e-mail and constant interruption these systems create struck a chord with a number of readers. Several offered strategies for dealing with the problem of information overload and e-mail glut.

These included using throwaway e-mail addresses for unwanted messages, creating multiple e-mail accounts and using filtering techniques. All of these solutions solve some problems but create others. For example, multiple e-mail addresses separate messages but there's still a need to check these accounts. So now I have 2, 3, or 4 e-mail accounts to check rather than one? Maybe I'm missing something here but I don't see the point.

Likewise, filtering creates a need to manage new and ever-expanding folders and constantly tweak rules. More time. More hassle. In the end, I spend less time tackling high-value work and more time overseeing administrivia.

The bottom line: if the problem could be solved by a simple strategy then why wouldn't we have solved the problem already?

Think of this as the diet book phenomenon. The fact that so many of them exist supports the notion that none of them actually work. Let's face it, our brains and bellies are all wired differently.

Worse, what works today probably won't work six months from now because managing all these systems and the resulting information is a moving target. This is exactly why we have to constantly install new software and systems and reengineer processes and workflow.

Unfortunately, there's no end in sight. Yes, today's young cell phone users might, as one reader suggests, view information as "just another blip in the information stream." But this doesn't necessarily lead to better information retrieval or improved decision-making. There's plenty of evidence to support the idea that it it has made things worse. Nor does it insulate them from the next generation of technology, which will likely leave them feeling entirely overwhelmed.

If one thing is certain it's that our ability to invent technology exceeds our ability to use it effectively. Blips do not eliminate drips. The data flood continues.