- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mark Hurst wouldn’t like my e-mail inbox, particularly the one for my Google Gmail account. We’ve never met, but I know about Mr. Hurst’s stringent standards for e-mail inboxes from “Bit Literacy,” his book on “productivity in the age of information and e-mail overload.”

His idea is that while computers have connected us to a world of information, that world is overwhelming us.

Having tons of items staring us in the face as is the case with a bulging e-mail inbox will cause, not alleviate, stress. Ditto, he contends, for the hodgepodge of digital photos, music files and documents on our computers.

Mr. Hurst, as his book reveals, thinks that an e-mail inbox should be empty, or at least as empty as possible. Incoming messages should not linger. That I have approximately 35,000 messages in my Gmail inbox would likely vex Mr. Hurst to no end.

His point is that an inbox should be no more than a digital way station: e-mails are either task-related, such as a note from your boss asking you to do something; or personal messages from a friend, relative or your bank; or the junk e-mail commonly known as “spam.”

If your boss wants you to file that report, that’s a “to do” item, or “todo” (no space) in Mr. Hurst’s world. Should your banker want to speak with you, that’s another todo. An e-mail from Aunt Mary may be delightful, but it should be printed out or deleted. And those notes about enlarging this or that, well, trashing these is the very least you can do.

“Bit Literacy,” which in my view begins more strongly than it finishes, makes a good case for “letting the bits go,” or dispatching our digital data to a specific place and for a specific purpose. Catch basins such as e-mail inboxes, unfiled photos and vague document file names such as “agenda.doc,” which after all could refer to a meeting this week or one five years ago, aren’t likely to contribute to real efficiency.

The goal, Mr. Hurst maintains, is to get through the day’s e-mail and other items so you can get to “real work.” Such dogmatism goes beyond e-mail in Mr. Hurst’s case. He’s against fancy word processors, specifically Microsoft Word, because the files created are generally way too large for the basic information being conveyed such as the aforementioned agenda. Better to type the agenda in a simple e-mail than create a Word document that must be opened, he says, and in this case he’s right.

He is more correct in advocating for to-do lists that make sense: These also should clear out daily or roll over to the next day. There should be enough information with each item to make it clear, and the list for today should contain only today’s tasks. Mr. Hurst sells an online to-do service, www.gootodo.com, which embodies his principles; 30-day trials are free.

I object to the author’s dissing of Microsoft Word. Mr. Hurst rightly suggests that brief items, such as a meeting agenda, should be in the body of an e-mail and not a much-larger Word document attached to a message. But Word, and similar programs, offer much capability to many users, and I wouldn’t go with a wholesale trashing. I’m also not sold on his advocacy of the Dvorak keyboard layout over the industry-standard qwerty, but I’m willing to experiment.

Overall, “Bit Literacy” is a bracing, hopeful read to those seeking to cope with too much digital stuff. It’s worth reading, especially in Washington, where e-mails seemingly explode exponentially. The book is published by Good Experience Press at a list price of $22.99.

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