E-Mail Jail

Chris Shanahan, one of our faculty members, gave a seminar this week on how to break out of e-mail jail. At first I thought the title referred to how tightly Outlook tethers us to our computers, but at the session I learned that some colleagues reside in a more literal jail. Their accounts are so full that they cannot receive mail. One audience member counted 3,000 messages in her inbox!

Chris’s presentation borrowed from 12-step programs to approach the problem. He advised breaking the task into more manageable chunks and committing to clearing out the inbox by the end of everyday. This goal may be unrealistic, but by aiming for an ideal, you’re likely to settle for something better than the status quo.

As a long-time Mac user, I tend to blame part of the problem on Microsoft’s clunky design. At least in Outlook 2003, the interface makes efficiency a challenge. What’s the difference between “Personal Folders,” my mailbox folders, and favorite folders? For some reason, I have a “Calendar” and a separate “Calendar in Personal Folders.” And these don’t share a screen with my inbox.

It’s like what economists have learned about motivating workers to invest in retirement plans. If you make it automatic, people will do it. But if you set up barriers to efficiency, most people will stay disorganized.

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