- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

Max Lucado, one of the world’s top-selling Christian authors, was celebrating. Was it the publication of another best-seller? Receipt of a literary prize? A better golf score?

None of the above: “Lift your glasses, please, and join me in a toast to my empty e-mail inbox,” Mr. Lucado announced on the afternoon of July 1 to the 20,292 people following him on Twitter, an Internet-based social network. “May you remain in your wonderful state,” he wrote.

The daily flood of e-mail messages — like the McDonald’s sign, “billions and billions served” — is unrelenting and frustrating to many.

“OMG your Twitter [message] just hit a nerve,” New York publicist Ian Twinn of Brodeur Partners e-mailed in response to a reporter’s online query about e-mail overload.

“I just came out of a three-hour meeting to 118 e-mails. Many of which deal with threads that are being replied to by multiple people and arriving out of order. I’m now having to figure out who said what when!!!”

Mr. Twinn is far from suffering alone. Bob Cusick, founder and chief executive officer of Clickware, a computer application design and development firm in Moorpark, Calif., confronts his own digital tsunami every day.

“I literally get between 850 and 1,500 e-mails per day through my six e-mail accounts,” Mr. Cusick said. “I get so much spam that I have had to develop over 475 mail rules — just to have [a] high likelihood of getting the 40 to 50 messages that ‘matter.’ Even then, I have to perform three or four ‘finds’ in my inboxes to ensure that I didn’t miss a legitimate e-mail among the morass … It’s very, very frustrating, time-consuming and just a huge pain.”

Randall Dean feels Mr. Cusick’s pain, and, he claims, has a solution: Turn off the e-mail notification sound effect, which he said sounds like “bling” in Microsoft Corp.’s Outlook e-mail client, and stop jumping every time a message comes in.

“When I work with my interns at Michigan State University in the undergrad program, they tend to respond very, very quickly to their e-mail, and [it] makes me think they’re paying too much attention,” said Mr. Dean, whose book “Taming the E-Mail Beast” (Sortis Publishing) was released in June.

“Their normal response is two to three minutes,” he added, which suggests “they don’t have enough to do or are not prioritizing the things that come in.” Workers who pounce on every new e-mail may imperil their jobs, Mr. Dean said.

“Because of the urgent nature of the e-mails they’re receiving and the sheer volume, [some people are] making poor decisions. They’re not giving enough priority to the issues on their plate.”

What may have been endearing in the 1998 romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail” becomes less amusing in real life. Mr. Dean said today’s instant e-mail responders have “almost a Pavlovian response. They stop to jump over and see what that message is.” Mr. Dean cited a study from the University of London’s Institute of Psychology, which, he said, suggested “people who constantly check e-mails and phone calls have a 10-point hit on their IQ — as if you missed an entire night’s sleep, or more than double the loss from smoking a marijuana joint.

Men are worse since they’re not good at multitasking. In an e-mail response to a reporter’s question, Glenn Wilson, the psychologist who conducted the study, said the marijuana comparison “was made by others, not me, against separately published work.”

However, regardless of how e-mail confusion stacks up against rolling a fatty, the sense of overload still stalks users.

“My office e-mail gets spam in German, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese (I think). French and Hebrew (once),” noted Vicki Stearn, corporate communications director at HD Radio developer iBiquity Digital Corp. in Columbia, Md. “But I’m really overwhelmed by the e-mails (and tweets and RSS feeds) that I am interested in.”

If you’re overwhelmed, turn down the volume, Mr. Dean said.

“I learned how to take away some of that stimulus,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in East Lansing, Mich. “Turn off those e-mail notifications. I reset my automatic send/receive parameters to get e-mail every 90 minutes, so I can have blocks of time to get actual work done. It does require some personal discipline,” he added.

People in high-demand occupations — which might well describe at least half of the District’s work force — might not be able to do that. Lobbyists, attorneys, congressional staffers and, yes, reporters have to jump on events as they occur, a point Mr. Dean concedes.

“If you’re in an immediate-response position, you need to check when e-mail comes in,” he said. But for the rest of us, “it’s a major disservice to your ability focus, get your work done and prioritize.” In addition, he added, even those high-demand people will have to occasionally block out time to accomplish major tasks.

To handle e-mail, he said, “get in habit of deciding what you’re going to do the first time you read it: What’s the task that needs to be done?”

Most people, Mr. Dean said, “open an e-mail, read it, start to form thought of what they’re going to do, decide they don’t have the time to do that and then put it back,” leading to a repeat of the cycle until the item is handled.

Mr. Dean suggested that if the response to an e-mail is “going to take longer than three minutes, convert it into a task on your task list. You’re not doing the task, but identifying it and adding it to your task list. Then go in and prioritize which [tasks] are most urgent right now.”

Also, Mr. Dean said, don’t add to the problem for others: “If you’re sending an e-mail, make it extremely clear in first two to three sentences what you want receiver to both know and do with e-mail. Stop sending FYI e-mails, which leaves a lot of room for error and misinterpretation.”

Developing such skills can show users light at the end of the e-mail tunnel: “If you can follow these more effectively, if you can get into those key basic habits, you’ll change your fundamental habits, … make a huge impact on your ability to manage the flow of information coming in,” Mr. Dean said.

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