Serenity Now!

If businesses don't find a way to help the knowledge worker manage information technology, today's confusion will lead to tomorrow's insanity.

Solving the problems of knowledge worker productivity and performance is a daunting prospect, so it makes sense to start with the most simplistic approach to research I know - studying . . . me. I've been known to develop enormous insights about others just by looking at my own problems and approaches. And, as any good Buddhist will tell you, observing oneself is the path to enlightenment. I'm not a Buddhist, mind you, but that's OK since my aims are more modest than enlightenment: I'm only shooting for a little sanity.

Like everybody else these days, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by my own personal information and knowledge environment. I have lots of electronic devices - it seems like a lot to me, anyway. For these purposes, I'm intentionally ignoring the devices my family uses, for which I am the first-line (if somewhat reluctant and ineffective) provider of technical support. For my own use, I have a desktop PC at home, a laptop PC that travels with me, a PDA and a typical mobile phone. None of them communicates very well with each other (though my PDA, for example, communicates reasonably well with my wife's and my assistant's PCs), and I occasionally have to send e-mails from one device to another as if they were distant cousins. I know they could be made to communicate better with each other, but I don't have time to figure it out, and frankly I am grateful if they are all just working.

E-mail has become the core of my information flow, but I get too much of it. I have four addresses, which get forwarded into two different e-mail clients. I know that isn't ideal, but if you work with multiple organisations, you tend to have multiple e-mail identities. A couple of those identities I access only at home, which makes my response time to them slow, but it keeps me sane.

Today I got 72 e-mails through one account and 29 through another, for a total of 101. About a third (a much higher fraction on weekends) were from spammers, which I am coming to believe are the lowest form of life on the planet. I sent out 32 messages during the day. I did all this through a broadband connection in my hotel - pretty cool - and it only cost me $12.95 and the hour I wasted trying to get connected to it. I finally called the front desk for help, and the attendant told me that it wasn't working but I should keep wasting my time trying to connect because it would probably be working soon.

Then there's my inbox, in which I have 1716 messages. You may find that scandalous, but it works pretty well for me. I've basically created one big filing cabinet for stuff I might need later. I delete about two-thirds of my messages on any given day, and the other third slowly drift up the screen. Every so often I delete a couple of hundred old e-mails. I recently attended a time management class in which the instructor suggested emptying your inbox every day, but I found that ludicrous. Maybe I'm just undisciplined, but I find I have to think about a lot of the e-mails I get - or solicit a response from someone else - before I can answer them.

I also get lots of voice mails in my three mailboxes - a total of 22 in today's queue (in part because I didn't get around to checking them yesterday). I don't like voice mail very much, and I try not to listen to my messages on my mobile phone while driving any more because I'm tempted to write things down in order to respond - particularly difficult in the car. I hope voice mail goes away soon or gets merged with e-mail. If you want to make my day, call me and hang up. Being able to delete a blank voice message seems a considerable accomplishment.

I have consciously chosen not to add certain tools and technologies to my information environment. I don't do IM, for example. I used it for a while, and I didn't like having my attention held hostage by anyone who felt like sending me a message. I also don't have any interest in wireless e-mail. I can't remember any e-mail that was so important that I needed to read it in a taxi. And I don't blog or read others' blogs - although one might wonder exactly how this rambling column differs from a blog other than being in print.

Once, at a time management course, the instructor advised making my PDA the centre of my digital life. I tried for a day to use it for "to-do" lists and so on, but I couldn't get used to it. Instead, I would write phone messages on any paper I could find, but not surprisingly, I lost a lot of them. So now I restrict myself to one notebook at a time. The only problem with that is that I consider it too important to waste on to-do lists and phone numbers, so I still write those on scraps and promptly lose them.

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