Saturday, November 20, 2004


A disturbing milestone

What will happen when the number of emails in my inbox reaches 1,000?

I began the semester with a low two-figure sum, but the number of emails in my inbox currently hovers in the low 900s. The numbers have made a slow but inexorable climb, a massive, thousands-fold percentage increase with occasional dips and corrections, in the manner of the Dow Jones Industrial Average since 1930.

In past years, a disastrously overfilled inbox would have held no more than 300 emails, and that for no more than a week, after which I would industriously purge down to about 20-30. Why this year is different would stump nobel-laureate economists and psychiatrists alike. I’m busier, and post election stress syndrome has cut into my productivity, but can that be the whole story?

Perhaps I need to review my email retention policies. I have never been a read-and-delete guy – is anyone? Currently, my inbox includes emails in the following categories:
1. Notices of upcoming events that I’m not sufficiently committed to that I would put them in my calendar.

2. Notices of events that were once in the first category, but that have now past, but I haven’t gotten around to purging the email.

3. Interesting weblinks, information or commentary that – like my pile of New Yorkers – my super-efficient fantasy alter-ego will soon get around to reading.

4. Things I need to respond to or deal with.

5. Things I needed to respond to or deal with, but didn’t, and now it’s too late, but I haven’t gotten around to purging the email.

6. Things I needed to respond to or deal with and did respond and/or deal, but I haven’t gotten around to purging the email.

7. Threads of email conversations that are noteworthy or that I otherwise want some kind of record of, but, if I really thought about it, why in the world would I need a record of it?

8. Emails whose content is no longer particularly relevant, but I want the sender’s email address handy and I haven’t gotten around to setting up my email address book.

9. Cute or heartwarming messages that, if they were written on greeting cards, would be piled up and saved in a drawer.
Clearly, there’s a “getting around to” problem here that may not just be limited to email. But let’s focus on one thing at a time, shall we? The most immediate problem is the fact that items in category #4 (have to respond or deal) and category #1 (may want to check out) can easily get lost in the stack. Once they’re opened and the attention-grabbing “unopened mail” symbol goes away, there’s nothing to distinguish them at a glance from, say, all the other categories. Meetings are missed, questions are unanswered, hurt feelings all around.

The greatest anxiety, though, comes from the great unknown: what happens when I hit 1,000? Will I get a nasty message from IT saying that my share of the server is full? Will there be a crash?

Why not simply purge now? The answer is quite simple, albeit paradoxical. The larger the numbers grow and the more important it is to purge, and purge now, the more time consuming the purge becomes. I simply do not feel like I have time for a complete purge during the semester while classes are in session. (I’m a professor, remember.)

I get anywhere from 20 to 60 emails a day – pretty average, I would think, for someone like myself who is linked and plugged in, but not exceedingly linked and plugged in. Some of these emails are read-and-deleters, and I occasionally purge a few older emails, bringing my total down below what it was at the opening bell. (A subtle reference back to my stock market metaphor!) But I’m not keeping up, and the total has grown at a rate of about 60 per week. If current trends continue, I will reach the dreaded 1,000 milestone within 10 days to 2 weeks. Classes end in just a little over three weeks. If email traffic lets up a bit over the Thanksgiving holiday, I may just barely hang on under 1,000. It’s a race again against time.

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