E-mail overload: How the pros handle it

"People really are e-mail addicts," says futurist Thornton May. "So many people have become victims of the tool instead of masters of the tool."

Here's how some people are, if not mastering the tool, at least taming it:

Ray Tomlinson, e-mail pioneer and principal engineer, BBN Technologies, gets "tens of messages per hour." BBN recently turned off its corporate spam filter because it was snagging legitimate messages, so he uses the spam filter built into his Thunderbird e-mail client from Mozilla Corp. The filter learns, getting better each time he marks a message as spam. And Tomlinson, who more than 30 years ago chose the "@" sign as a delimiter for e-mail messages, has not allowed his e-mail address to appear on his public Web page. "I can see there might be a considerable volume of people just wanting to say they sent an e-mail to Ray Tomlinson," he explains.

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E-mail overload: How the pros handle it

Vinton Cerf, chief Internet evangelist, Google Inc., and co-inventor of TCP/IP, says, "I respond to last-in messages first, giving the impression of low response delay. Also, I tend towards pretty terse replies." For example, he'll send you a three-letter message -- "ack," a code traditionally used by one computer to acknowledge it's received something from another computer -- to let you know he got your message.

Matthew Lynch, CIO, ShopKo Stores Inc., says, "I limit distribution of my personal and company e-mail addresses to as small an audience as I can get away with." He reads mail in his in-box from bottom up, so he gets entire threads at the end of them and doesn't have to see the same content more than once. He "unsubscribes" as often as possible, and when that's not an option, he flags a message for the spam filter. His ultimate weapon: periodically changing his e-mail addresses.

Ray Karrenbauer, chief architect, ING Groep NV, lets the "rich rules" embedded in his Microsoft Outlook client sort his 600 daily messages into buckets. That allows him to home in quickly on high-priority messages, such as those from clients or his boss. "The software is pretty good," he says, "so I can just check the 'A list' every hour or so."

Carl Jones, director of collaboration services, The Boeing Co., says the key is to give employees clear policies and etiquette guidelines. "Be concise; state right up front what is the purpose of the e-mail. We are into brevity." For his own e-mail, Jones carries a wireless BlackBerry so he can check messages on the go. "I don't let my queue grow very large," he says.

Robert Holstein, CIO, National Public Radio Inc., never deletes a message that has gotten through his spam filter. "I leave everything in my in-box and archive it into quarterly files." It's easier to just search his hard drive or archives using the X1 search tool from X1 Technologies Inc. than it is to worry about folders, he says. Has he ever wanted to later retrieve something he probably would have deleted using a more fastidious policy? "Absolutely."

Paul Saffo, director, Institute for the Future, says, "I do triage -- I erase the ones I don't need to look at; then I answer the ones I can answer in a sentence or two; then there's the 'residium,' six or seven messages out of 300 that require some thought." The residium over time becomes a "slowly growing reef ... that rises up out of the e-mail sea like a volcano." Once a month, he makes a quick pass through it to "blow away everything that's irrelevant and send apologies to people I've ignored." Other Saffo rules of thumb: "Never spend more time responding to a message than the author spent writing it. And assume that the more people there are on the distribution list, the less important it is to read it or respond to it."

Joshua Goodman, Microsoft Corp. researcher, offers this small comfort: "In 2000, information workers were spending four hours a week on e-mail, and in 2004, it was up to 8.8 hours. There's not much more room for exponential growth. It can only double a couple of more times."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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