Battening down in a mail storm

Date: 03/12/2002
Words: 665
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Computers
Page: 7
How do you control an inbox that has accumulated more than 28,000 items?

It has been 53 days since The Edge decided that something had to be done about the e-mail inbox. Due to our finely honed strategy for handling electronic communications, it had somehow ballooned to 28,054 messages.

Certain inefficiencies tend to arise from having 28,054 messages in an inbox. Although we scan for new messages several times a day, we frequently overlook something important.

Although we use many of the messages as a To Do prompt (and ideally flag them with a higher priority), our dilatory nature means that ``later" is a concept that frequently equates to ``never". Of the 28,054 messages in our inbox, 12,451 remain unread.

Our original strategy was to develop a series of folders that would allow us to sort our communications into various categories and even use the e-mail client's filtering feature to sort incoming mail.

The manifest failure of this approach is indicated by our folder list. There are 48 of them. Some have one message in them. Others have been duplicated to indicate that we had the same bad idea more than once.

What we suffer from, it appears, is a bizarre psychological condition called fear of folders.

Although our rational mind appreciates that efficient filing reduces clutter and improves the speed of searching, our instincts tell us that once we put something in a folder we are likely to forget which one we put it in. Or forget the folder exists. And while rules-based sorting is a triumph of man's ingenuity, in our case it fails owing to the fact that we have yet to discover any rule that reliably directs our attention to anything but the inbox.

We feel better, it seems, having everything right out there in the open, where we at least have a chance of stumbling across it.

We are enormously comforted by the fact that a lot of people share this less-than-systematic approach to their e-mail. Researchers Candace Sidner and Olle Balter interviewed and observed eight e-mail users in five different departments of a software company. One manager received 100 new messages a day and had a total of 20,000 messages and 200 folders. But 90 per cent of his messages were in his inbox. He did not delete any messages or read all of them. A researcher who received 30 new messages a day kept 20,000 messages, all of them in the inbox and six folders.

One of The Edge's colleagues, Jeremy Howard, who founded the e-mail service, is far more efficient. There are never more than 15 messages in his inbox, pending being efficiently dispatched.

He has a folder called Large Items, to which any message over 2MB is automatically filtered. Another called To File receives messages containing attachments that have to be filed at some stage.

He has two junkmail folders, which use SpamAssassin's scoring system. Any message that receives a score greater than 20 on SpamAssassin's filter lands in one folder, where it becomes an automatic delete. The other folder, with a score of more than 10, can be scanned for any legitimate mail before being dumped.

A folder called Current Stuff signals Jeremy that he must deal with the contents within a day or so. He has a parent folder called Keep and, within Keep, a bunch of sub-folders for various areas of interests.

He also uses a Business folder, with sub-folders for each of the businesses he's involved in and each current client.

In the 53 days since The Edge has been using FastMail, we have managed to keep our inbox trimmed to a total of 233 messages, with 248 messages saved in other folders.

But we have yet to find the perfect system that works for us.

We would welcome the experience of readers on the topic.