Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Taming the wild e-beast

Take a gander at what one of the folders in my email "in-box" looked like Sunday night (with names of people blurred out for privacy reasons).
In contrast, here's what my desk and office area looks like.  
Not really the same visual experiences, you think?   There's a huge difference between the looks of these two mail repositories, and this difference explains why email is both easier and harder than paper mail to deal with.  The good things about email (speed, low cost, low trash) I'll take as a given.  I love-love-love email.

As a matter of fact, here is a digression on one more cute reason why a mathematician loves email. We have a "secret code" that lets us send math long distances. (Okay, it's not so secret; it's called "TeX").   I can send a regular old email message with bits of this secret code, very ugly:
\item \tf The telescoping series $\sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac 1{n(n+1)} = \sum_{n=1}^\infty \left(\frac1n - \frac1{n+1}\right)$ converges. 
 And my colleague can "decode" it to get this pretty picture:

Magic!  Before email (and TeX), sending math back and forth was painfully slow.  Now it's not.  Digression over.

But email stinks at being easy to tame. Both paper mail and email accumulate; both become overwhelming; both can take over their habitat.   But I think paper is a heck of a lot easier to sort into psychologically manageable "tackle me" piles. Because,
  • I can (and do) sort paper into piles, and the piles have actual locations: things on the near corner of my desk are urgent; things on the floor are to file; etc.  It's true you can sort email into files, but the folders are different because of different names, not because of different locations.
  • Sorting paper actually uses my body.  Not that putting a piece of paper down is exercise, but reaching to the left, or reaching behind me, or reaching up -- those are psychologically very different than clicking and dragging a mouse.  Not to be all new-age-y on you, but I do get a physical connection to the paper.  Even tossing a paper in the recycling bin feels more final than clicking "delete".  Let's just say that paper allows for a greater range of motion than email does.
  • Paper stays put, mostly.  Once I put my mail on the left hand side of the desk, it's there; whereas new emails bump my old email down lower.  Things move around on the screen without me moving them.  Said another way, I have to search for the email by its name, not by its location.
  • Paper has color and shape.  I can search my office for that small blue envelope, that memo with lots of writing on it, the bundle of papers stapled together.  It's possible to add "labels" to email with some programs, but the choice is limited (6 colors?), and I still have to add it myself.  Paper mail comes already with its own distinctive looks.
  • I can write or attach notes onto paper.  If I could suggest ONE change to the gurus who design email systems, it would be to allow the person getting an email to attach something like a sticky note to the outside of the email:  "Call Sam".  "Follow up on Friday".  "Check budget and reply".  Look again at that picture of the email I'm sitting on.  It's hard to know just what the heck I'm supposed to do with each of those messages, unless I either remember what it said or I open it again, read it again, and decide what to do.
So here are some of my favorite e-sorting tricks for choosing and naming the e-folders I use.  (If you have good tricks, I welcome them).
  • Name folders for time-specific projects with the year.  "Calc2012" is a folder of email from my current calculus students.  I'll hang onto until 2013, and then I'll trash it and all the mail in it, too.  Long-term, this will mean less email to clutter up the "search" features on my email.
  • Keep a bunch of "action" folders near the top.  (I got this idea from David Allen, Getting Things Done).  Begin these names with @ (for action), $, or #.  Such as . . .
  • $ Saturday.  That's when I pay the bills, so all e-bills go right in there, to be deleted/filed after I pay them.
  • # waiting.  This holds those emails I don't need to look at or think about right now, but might want soon:  confirmation of purchases that are on their way to me; letter from a student who wants a recommendation, but who I asked to send a bit more information first; information about an upcoming weekend camp for the boys, etc.
  • @ to print  self explanatory, no?  I don't print email often, but I'll chuck emails in here that have pointers to things I do want to print.  
  • @ to do.  I never put any email in here unless I first write down in my planner exactly what I should be doing.  I don't want to get caught up in the "I have no idea what to do; I'll deal with this later" box of email.  No, this is for the big projects, for the letters of recommendation I plan to write, for the specific tasks I intend to do next Thursday.  All written down as tasks in my paper planner.   (The screen shot above is actually my @to do folder -- and by today, several of those tasks are Done!  phew!)
Beneath the action folders -- the ones I use most frequently -- I put the gobs of folders that I think of as "reference" folders.  These include letters from family and friends; semi-dormant committee work, messages to and from people who have invited me to speak in the past.

Moving email into folders (or just deleting it) is a bit of a constant chore, and sometimes I wonder if I should just do what so many of my students do:  just have one giant in-box with all my mail.  But keeping my in-box small keeps the list of things to scratch my head over that much more manageable.  So I don't have to fret that I'm missing something big.   And to me, that's worth the hassle, at least until I figure out a  better method.

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