How is it possible? More on email

The readings that prompted these postings were:

Lehikoinen, Juha, Antti Aaltonen, Pertti Huuskonen, and Ilkka Salminen. Personal Content Experience: Managing Digital Life in the Mobile Age. Chichester, England: John Wiley, 2007. [48-51, 84-94, 127-157]

Whittaker, Steve, and Candace Sidner. "Email Overload: Exploring Personal Information Management of Email." Paper presented at the Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 13-18, 1996, 276-283.

The following response was to a question about whether a high number of emails are seen as a sign of prestige or importance.

Both of my managers receive upwards of 50-100 emails a day, depending on the crisis du jour. It's more a sign that their world is probably wider than mine and that they have more responsibilities (and more corporate spam to filter out). Both would love to have fewer emails to plow through; sometimes the job feels like it's managing email rather than getting work done.

Piles of unprocessed emails stresses both of them out. So it's not a badge of manhood for them.

One of my managers has been there for 10+ years, and he's a filer; his folder hierarchy is like baroque stained-glass in its intricacy. But for our clients and others on the team who don't file, they know that he *does* file; hence, he's usually the go-to guy for "do you have a copy of that email?" His ability to file and find stuff means they don't have to (and he now has this reputation to live up to, so that adds to his stress). [Update: after backing up his emails to a CD, he deleted about 10,000 emails from his account, some dating back to 2004. And remember, he deleted lots of email too.]

I remember reading somewhere that our brains have a 'doing' function and a 'thinking' function. The trick is, that they don't work at the same time. Reacting to email is a satisfying 'doing' activity, so most people probably don't think too much about how to file something so they can find it later; they're too concerned with taking care of business now. Sometimes we'll think ahead and plan an elaborate system to process our emails, but when we start doing it, the system is awkward or cumbersome; I'd class making folders and filing as a system that some people find cumbersome.

Another part of the issue may be the just-in-case vs just-in-time mentality. A lot of us filers and packrats like to hold on to things just in case we'll need them; but 80% of our files are never seen again. 20% I'll access regularly, but that 20% is different for every user, which is why filing still winds up becoming a personal matter, even in a business setting.

I wonder if things would be different if we asked people to create their own filing systems as if someone else would be using them next year. Would they then take a little more time to create folders, to make life a little easier for the next person? They may be able to create just enough metadata for us to get by.


In what ways are your own personal information management practices similar to or different from those described in the two readings?I'm one of those unfortunates who believes there must be one true way to do anything; as a result, I keep shifting things around and never have a stable setup. My wife, OTOH, doesn't seem to have this problem.re email: My email strategies for work and personal are different. In general, I'm more organized than the article subjects, partly because my role in the team is be the unofficial archivist and because experience with our customers has shown that I'm better at keeping these records than they are.

At work, my strategies shift and vary based on the work I'm doing and the tools I'm using. I used Outlook differently from Lotus Notes, for example. In general, I find myself dumbing down the email interfaces so they're as simple to use as possible. I tend to create folders for each project I'm involved with and emails go there. Because we have storage restrictions, I will archive emails (usually emails with big attachments) to a separate database on my hard drive; I have an agent set up to archive mails over 6 months old. For the database on my hard drive, I have full-text indexing turned on as this lets me search inside PDFs, Word files, etc. (Can't do this with my active email database.)

After attempting to segregate mails by project AND fiscal year, I decided last year to keep all project-related emails in one project folder and be done with it. (Notes lets you keep a file in more than one folder, basically a shortcut to the email, but I rarely use that.) I rarely think about metadata or context; like the article subjects, I'm concerned with the next deadline or commitment and long-term storage and access isn't part of my everyday thinking.

We've found that it's best after a project is over or some disaster has happened, to draft a Word file that summarizes the incident, what we did, our rationale, important facts, etc. It helps to draw everything together in one place in a coherent narrative. Often, important meetings or phone calls are not documented elsewhere, and they sometimes need to be captured. I then email it to as many people as request to see it (safety in numbers; in case I delete my copy, someone else may have it); I also save it to our Notes document database on the network where it's backed up and available for others to see.

[Aside: It strikes me that the Notes article is all about jumbled collections of individual items--call them 'words.' The Symbian developers are creating a framework to turn individual words into 'phrases' with simple grammar -- "is part of," "was taken on," "is used by," and so on. But there's no technological way to turn those phrases into any meaningful sentences or a narrative, except in the mind of the user.]

My personal mail is kept in Gmail, with minimal labels (I don't use multiple tags). I find the searches powerful enough that I only use labels for short-term personal projects.

Previously, I used Yahoo mail for several years; I archived all of that mail to my hard drive in 2006, and have gone back to it less than 10 times, I'd say. I just haven't needed to. I use Copernic Desktop Search to scour files for keywords if I can't find a particular document.

My files are organized primarily by directory name, but I have duplicates that have built up over time, and haven't figured out a strategy to deal with them. I depend on the directory and file names to provide whatever context I need to figure out what they are. I may append keywords to filenames, but not often.

My photos are organized in directory folders by year, then by month, then by subjects. Music files are organized in directory folders by genre, artist, etc. I don't really trust Picasa or iTunes or MediaMonkey to organize these things for me because their organization tends to be proprietary and require much organizational fiddling by myself, whereas they can all read the files in my directories, which I can arrange once and then forget about it.

I tend to think hierarchically and alphabetically, so that's how I tend to arrange my files on disk; I fall back to Copernic when I just can't find it by scanning folder and file names.

More on email overload

Yet more reaction to this article:

Whittaker, Steve, and Candace Sidner. "Email Overload: Exploring Personal Information Management of Email." Paper presented at the Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 13-18, 1996, 276-283.

From a records management POV, I had these thoughts:

  • People are so overwhelmed when they're in the thick of their email, that they can't discern an immediate difference between the ephemeral and the archive-worthy. (This is even though they describe their jobs as mostly managing email.) For this reason also, we can't depend on them to prune their stash of mails.
  • If the users can't categorize their mails so they can locate them, then records managers will have even less success at helping anyone find them later.
  • If we're faced with having to archive everything, then nothing is of value. You can't find the needle if you keep adding hay to the stack.
  • If we establish retention policies, then we're the only ones who will follow them. I perceive these users as being so busy, that they will think of archiving as someone else's job. They already have too much work to do.
  • The article doesn't address the issue of file attachments (I use Gmail for file storage as much as for communication) or of the corporation owning your email. File attachments are as important as emails these days.
  • Again, it's not mentioned, but users are more likely to hear from corporate IT that their inboxes are taking up too much storage space and that's when they have to purge. At [previous workplaces], we took training now and then on retaining records, but you hear more often that you need to trim down your mailbox size.

Other stray thoughts and babblements:

  • This article was written over 10 years ago, and I wonder what biases or expectations the authors and the users brought to the topic of email and email programs. What were they expecting email programs to do for them?
  • Having used Lotus Notes at various jobs since about 1995 or so, I can testify that its general yuckiness contributed mightily to the users' problems. Although Notes has added buttons to let you copy a mail into a calendar or to-do entry, those are areas of Notes that users I've worked with know very little about, like the Journal or To Do areas. You can make Notes remind you to do things regarding your mail or tasks arising from it, but it requires you to click buttons and takes you away from the inbox, which seems to be everyone's home base. When people leave the inbox pane, Notes is a lot more forbidding and cold, with toolbars and commands appearing that don't have anything to do with email. (Which makes sense--Notes is a document database program with an apparently sophisticated macro programming language, and these toolbars and commands help with database and record manipulation; an email is just another document in the database to Notes, but that's not how users see an email record. I read somewhere that the original developers built the email app originally just to show what could be done with the language; but it turned out that customers wanted emails more than the databases.)
  • That said, Notes STILL doesn't have a threaded message feature as Outlook does and it regularly frustrates me. Add to this annoyance the extra one that [my workplace's] Notes team has turned off full-text indexing, so searches are slow and incomplete, and you can't search within file attachments. I can't say enough bad things about Notes.
  • It would be easy to blame the users for not managing their emails, but the problem also lies with the app developers who either don't listen or are unable to accommodate technical improvements that might make life a little easier for their users.
  • I think these users were not taught good work habits, basically, and probably expected Notes to do the thinking about their work for them (there I go, blaming the user). I doubt any of them had 90 voicemails just sitting there, yet they'd have twice that many emails just sitting there. What is it about the email UI or the promise of email that makes people think their work is done?

On the subject of Gmail Overload, here are two links to how a PR guy uses Gmail as the center of his information universe. These postings include links to other articles in the series where he contorts Gmail into painful positions.

Micro Persuasion: Turn Gmail Into Your Personal Nerve Center http://www.micropersuasion.com/2007/02/transform_gmail.html

Micro Persuasion: How to Use Gmail as a Business Diary and More Tips http://www.micropersuasion.com/2007/04/a_few_weeks_bac.html

This link is to a guy who thought email was great and now thinks it's bad. THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_print.html#pollack