Back for another bout of email hell

Two weeks away from the office grind is good for anyone, even if the weather sucks - although in this instance, drools might be the better word. Two days out of the fortnight weren't wet.

Two weeks away from the office grind is good for anyone, even if the weather sucks – although in this instance, drools might be the better word. Two days out of the fortnight weren’t wet.

But I’m not complaining about the weather. Now that I’m tethered once more to my desk, the skies are blue and the air’s as crisp as it ever gets in Auckland. Typical.

Just being out of the reach of email makes a holiday worthwhile. It wasn’t my plan to do without it altogether, but the technology’s imperfections—discovered only after it was too late to do anything about them—ensured the connection between office and me was completely severed. In the event, it was probably the total absence of email which allowed me to return to work as refreshed as I feel. It might be a less insistent communications medium than the phone but, if you’re like me, having an inbox full of messages that demand some sort of response is almost as nagging as the phone’s ring.

So when I discovered on my last day before going on leave that Lotus Notes’ “out of office” agent didn’t work in the version IDG runs, I had a moment of panic. I briefly considered activating an agent that would forward my mail to a Yahoo address, then remembered that agent ceased to work as well when we last updated Notes. That was hardly going to be an ideal solution to the need to keep an eye on incoming law suits, anyway, since it would have necessitated constant checking, and I was planning to be on holiday, after all.

In the end, the perfect solution was the one that should have been most obvious in the first place: divert the whole 100 or so messages a day into some other Notes sucker’s inbox, and who better than deputy editor Mark Broatch? (Thanks a lot, Mark; you did an excellent job in my absence. What do I owe you for not breathing a word about the contents of all the personal email you had to filter for potential news leads?)

An unexpected benefit of this diversion tactic was that when I went to catch up on my email a day or two before returning to work, there was none to be seen. I’d been in a bad mood in anticipation of this task—I’d figured there might be upwards of a 1000 or so assorted press releases, complaints, cheap Viagra offers and the rest of it. So the cloud lifted when I realised diverting the mail meant not even a copy reached my inbox.


This involuntary email separation showed me that it is possible — and desirable — to do without it. I expect feelings of being at its beck and call are nearly universal among you. My suggestion, if you can can engineer it, is have a break. In my job, email has gone in the space of a decade or so from being an unbelievably useful tool to being a black hole that devours time. When it first spread among the people I need to be in regular contact with — Computerworld reporters, contributors and contacts — it was a great time-saver: for exchanging text and image files, taking care of editorial and administrative details, and extracting a quick response from an otherwise difficult to contact person for a story.

These days it still fulfills those functions, but it’s also a conduit for all sorts of crap that distracts from the job at hand. It’s not just the outright spam that’s the problem, but all the messages which might just have some significance at some future point but which right now are in the nag pile. My imperfect answer, rather than to ruthlessly delete anything that doesn’t have immediate importance, is to file messages away in numerous folders under all sorts of names. Later, when I can no longer remember where I might have stored a particular message, a quick search of the mail file will usually bring it to light. But that can’t go on forever: when I last looked, there were more than 7000 messages filed away occupying about 300MB of disk space. If everyone of IDG’s 70 or so staff was just as much of a squirrel, we’d have more than 20GB of email cluttering up the place, which our system administrators aren’t going to tolerate.

Aside from that, can I afford to be so dependent on an application which is essentially a messaging system to store so much potentially critical data? When I discover deficiencies such as the inability to make the out of office message work, I begin to think not.

So when we think about the scourge of email and zero in on spam and viruses as the main issues, we might actually be missing the point. Spam and viruses are undoubtedly problems, but plenty of people are working to solve them. The more intractable one, brought home to me by two weeks’ liberation from email, is coping with the sheer volume of the stuff. By that I mean finding a way that it ceases to consume more time than it saves, and is readily accessible when we need it. If anyone has any answers, I’d love to hear them. Otherwise, I anticipate I’ll need another holiday in a month or two.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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