Thursday, April 30, 2009

 

The Inbox Police

As I've gotten older, and more aware of the unintended consequences of things, I've become pickier in selecting acts of rebellion. I don't curse in public nearly as much, I keep the road rage to myself, and snark attacks (not counting on the blog) are fewer and farther between than they used to be.

That said, I have no patience for the inbox police.

My email inbox at work (hint: it ends in 'edu') strains mightily under the weight of, well, nothing actually, but it's huge. It's well into the thousands at this point – I've honestly stopped paying attention – and it just keeps growing. Although I haven't seen anything formally published on the links between email messages and tribbles, I consider it only a matter of time.

There are those among us who believe that inboxes, like desks, should be kept neat and tidy at all times. And then there are those among us, like myself, who believe that the first group needs to back off.

At least with desks, there's a non-trivial risk of fire, and sometimes things slide around and get lost. (I'll admit to having branded the occasional memo with Dilbert's 'brown ring of quality.') But with email inboxes, as long as you have a decent 'search' function, I'm at a loss to explain why ritualistic purging is somehow a good thing.

Purging an email inbox takes an astonishing amount of time, especially once you're into the four or five figures. That's time that could have been spent doing almost anything else, like maybe earning your salary. It also makes things harder to find, since executing the search function on a single folder is so much faster than doing it on a whole series of subfolders.

A couple of years ago, a colleague who got dragged into a ridiculous legal case asked me, in sheer desperation, if I still had an email he had sent me a few years earlier. I called it up right away and sent it along. Had I faithfully purged everything not obviously necessary, it would have been lost to the sands of time.

I like to think that I'm doing future generations a favor by meticulously maintaining a documentary record for historical purposes. Note to future generations: you're welcome.

This is reason #763 why I like Google. Gmail offers...wait for it...unlimited storage! Better yet, unlimited storage with a rip-roarin' search function! For packrat nerds like me, that's crack laced with nicotine and dipped in chocolate. Add that it's free, and available anywhere, and sheesh. My 'deandad' inbox dwarfs even my work one, but somehow, Google doesn't mind. I find that endearing.

Back in the dark ages, I'm told, the issue was 'server space.' To this I say, pshaw. If we need more server space, we can ^&#%*# well switch to gmail and be done with it. Electronic storage is vaster and cheaper than it has ever been, and getting more so all the time. Email messages aren't getting any longer.* This objection may once have been valid, but no more.

I delete spam, and room-change notifications, and an astonishing number of solicitations for webinars. But I do those as soon as I see them. There's no going back and purging; the 'live or die' decision is immediate and permanent.

It may be partly generational. Email was a fixture of office life by the time my career got going, so I never developed habits with paper that I just carried over to email. If anything, I much prefer email to paper, since the computer can do searches far faster than I ever could. The desk ain't pretty, but the inbox works just fine, thank you very much.

Wise and worldly readers – have you had any dealings with the inbox police?

*I'll admit sometimes longing for the days before most people understood the 'attachment' function. On a typical workday, I get probably 100-300 pages of attachments. That's the real time-suck. Sometimes I think the most important PhD skill I actually use is speed reading.

Comments:
You don't use the 'archive' function on Gmail? That would allow you to do everything you currently do, but also keep your inbox free for actual to-do items in progress...
 
Because I work for a state agency, our email inboxes now fall under Right to Know. Therefore, our IT, Legal and RTK offices spent an inordinate amount of time over the last year coming up with a filing scheme for us to follow.

The scheme goes something like this: Only the sender of an email is responsible for producing an email if there is an RTK request so they primarily care about sent email; so as soon as you send an email you decide if it is a record under RTK. If it is a record, you decide if it is a policy decision or if it will be used to support a policy decision or is the basis of some policy decision. If it is any of those you put it in a long term storage folder. If it is anything else that is for a project you are currently working on, you put it in a short term projects folder. As soon as the project is completed, you delete the folder. If the email is not a record, delete it immediately.

For incoming emails, you either put it in a short term storage folder for an active project or delete it immediately.

I asked what I do if it is an email that I will need to refer to in the future but is not part of an active project. They looked at me like I had 6 eyes. They don't quite get how the majority of the people actually work.

The best part of the new email management guidelines? If a request comes in and we can't find an email that we should have kept, there will be a presumption of wrongdoing...

Yeah, thanks for the support. Suffice to say, I'm now archiving everything as a short term project and refuse to delete anything.
 
Before completely bashing the idea of cleaning out your inbox, there's a speech on "Inbox Zero" given at Google by Merlin Mann a couple of years ago worth watching:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=973149761529535925

Also, as an educational institution, you are entitled to free use of Google Apps. Why haven't you switched?

(Yes, there is a presumption in the question that not switching to Gmail is wrong. It is because it is wrong not to have switched.)
 
A good email reader like Thunderbird allows you to use filters and folders, which keeps your inbox clean for you without the need to purge periodically. It also has the added benefit (for the investment of the hour at most it takes to set up a good filtering system) of helping busy administrators prioritize their new email by seeing which of your Very Important Folders have new mail in them.

If the folder with correspondence with the Provost/President shows new mail, you won't have to wade through 10 webinar emails to know there was something important there.

I plead guilty to being one of those people who gasp in horror at seeing an inbox folder with anything more than 100 in it. (Current inbox count: 19).

But to each their own.
 
My husband used to work for a Very Large Company that deleted all employee email that was more than 30 days old. All of it. And you weren't allowed to print out copies. (I guess they'd been sued too many times; routine deletion of email is a defense against the accusation that "you only deleted that because you knew it was damning!") Since project requirements were often relayed in email, and projects often took more than 30 days, the employees took to storing email on their thumb drives. They *had* to have the info, they weren't allowed to print it and file it, so what were they supposed to do? Real secure, huh?
 
I am the Inbox police, but not your Inbox police. Server space is an issue, but not the defining one. Disk space is cheap while e-mail hasn't gotten much bigger. Mainly, the problem is that certain mail programs suck terribly at handling very large inboxes. This is where the "clean your inbox" crap comes from. My alma mater even had a script run yearly to move your inbox to a "INBOX-200x.archive" folder. The other source of Inbox stupidity is liability. In a misguided attempt to thwart due process, IT departments are occasionally asked to define an email retention policy other than "indefinitely".

I love google's mail client. We've moved our students to it, but retain staff and faculty on a local Exchange, I assume because of privacy laws.
 
I'm with you on this one, DD, for a bunch of reasons, including these two big ones:

1) Students do not clean out their inboxes. This means that there are always a few students in any class who don't receive important emails because they've exceeded their quotas. This is especially problematic when some of these students are in your online class and email is the only way for you personally to communicate with them.

2) I fantasize about emails from students magically going into folders for each class I teach. I even tried to set it up like this one semester early on in this gig. The problem? I teach around a hundred students in a semester, and I teach four different classes. The amount of time it takes to set this up (especially since I'd need to do it every semester - it's not just like set it up once and forget about it) seems like a waste to me. Add to this that students don't necessarily email from their university accounts, don't necessarily put the course number in the subject line of emails (or any other identifying information) and, well... trying to organize this sort of system is maddening.

I do usually purge in the spring (just as I do with paper) when I know that I shouldn't need to produce emails to prove anything, but during the academic year I just let the inbox expand as necessary.
 
I only clean out my inbox (or my sent mail folder, or my deleted mail folder--yes, if I delete an email, it's not deleted...my University uses Outlook...either I have to have the autodelete feature turned on or I have to manually delete the deleted mail) when the system says I'm out of space. (I currently have over 12,000 items sitting there. And sometimes I need some of it, especially in the "Sent" folder. The oldest thing in the inbox is from April 2003, notes on a presenttion I gave.)

My university is moving to gmail for student mail (it autoforwards from the student's university email address to their gmail address), but not for faculty or staff. Why, you ask? Just because.
 
PREACH ON!
All my .edu mail goes to gmail now. I radically less annoyed with emails, particularly hugeo pretty-picture signature attachments (WHY people find those to be necessary, and seasonally changed at that, I will never understand).
Now I only sign in to .edu when I need to make sure the email appears to come from that address (i.e. if I'm introducing myself to a colleague).

I keep everything electronically, and a fair amount of paper as well. And I like it that way. Now that we are starting to being able to save the photon-to-electron megafiles from confocal microscopy pictures I take, I can't help bu think the "server space" argument is totally wonky.

"This is reason #763 why I like Google. Gmail offers...wait for it...unlimited storage! Better yet, unlimited storage with a rip-roarin' search function! For packrat nerds like me, that's crack laced with nicotine and dipped in chocolate. Add that it's free, and available anywhere, and sheesh." And that is reaso#820 I love your writing.

My only complaint now is that gmail needs a bigger attachment limit, or people need to not send me electron microscope files embedded into powerpoint in noncompressed fashions.
 
That video that James Howard posted is the worst instructional video I've ever seen--15 minutes into a 58 minute video he was still babbling condescendingly and I still hadn't learned anything. Are his ideas written down somewhere where I could read them in 5 minutes, maybe?
 
I'm my own inbox police--if I get more than ~100 in my inbox, things start to slip. (I've been as high as 600. Current count: 34.) I aim to file everything immediately, which I always fail at, so I do massive cleanups every now and then. My holy grail is to have so few emails in the inbox that the scroll bar disappears. I honestly can't imagine not cleaning out the inbox--I have over 20000 emails in folders and my archive. I use Google desktop to search for things as needed, and I've often been glad that I could go back 4 or 5 years and pinpoint an important email.
 
As a person who has done an obscene amount of reading on the general personal information management field, I have to say that the research has shown that "pilers" may be more efficient than "filers." Basically: whatever works for you is the best system.
 
My university deletes email in the system after six months whether it is in your in-box or in the "cabinet". This drives me nuts because I have projects that are way over six months in breadth -- two years is common!

In fact, now that you mention it, I'd better look and see what's the status on a project that's been on the back-burner the last few months. If I've lost those emails, I'm screwed!

I wish we'd switch to something like Gmail for the ability to tag, archive and to have a much better search function built-in.
 
Sorry, DD: I'm one of those "clear to empty" types. I don't care if anybody else does it (hence don't really qualify for the "Police" rubric) but I definitely want to move things out of there just as soon as they're dealt with.
 
Email quotas are tools of the devil; HD space is currently at a buck a gig. It's just really bizarre to have any quota below that; is an IT person really going to be able to explain how a student missing a single email from a professor is worth less than a dollar?

There's no difference between a set of folders and a good search function. The computer doesn't know they're different; it just puts stuff on the HD and applies rules for finding it. They're just different rules.

I agree that if email inboxes on old mail programs have issues, there should be an auto-archive to a single archive box. That allows search people to go to one place to search.

But the explosion of storage space really hasn't caught up with IT policies in this area.
 
You can archive through Outlook and still maintain your search function. Do you not have Outlook?

Gmail is a little problematic for me because it is "sampled" for content and you never know about the security of an external provider. At least if your IT department screws up you can fire someone. What can you do to goggle?
 
Email quotas are tools of the devil; HD space is currently at a buck a gig. It's just really bizarre to have any quota below that; is an IT person really going to be able to explain how a student missing a single email from a professor is worth less than a dollar?Yes, consumer grade hard disks cost around $1/GB, but the disk is a fraction of the cost of managed storage. You need to purchase drive cages, servers, racks, UPS and generator capacity, A/C capacity, and power costs to put that drive into production, then you also have to backup that data (which means buying tapes or multiple hard disks and a fireproof safe or off-site storage rental to store them in) and pay for IT staff to manage all of that.

If you need to buy a new server, that next GB of space could come at a small 5-figure cost. If you just need bigger drives in your fileserver, then you have a 4-figure cost and a data migration to schedule. If you've filled your data center (and most places are near capacity), then the next GB of space could cost in the millions.

In summary, managing personal storage on a PC is a completely different problem from managing storage for thousands of customers in a 24x7 operation.
 
"a fraction of the cost of managed storage. You need to purchase drive cages, servers, racks, UPS and generator capacity, A/C capacity, and power costs to put that drive into production, then you also have to backup that data (which means buying tapes or multiple hard disks and a fireproof safe or off-site storage rental to store them in) and pay for IT staff to manage all of that."

Most of which should already be being done. The larger marginal increase in disk rate can mainly be attributed to "enterprisey" purchasing policies. Amazon offers storage at 15 cents a gigabyte. I leave it as an exercise to the reader how a university can expect to pay upwards of 10 dollars per gigabyte.
 
Dude, I worked in IT. If you're paying five figures a gig, it's not my fault you're insanely stupid. As noted above, Amazon offers storage at 15 cents a gig a month.

Yes, you do have to buy racks and mounts and there are actual real live costs beyond the buck. It might actually come out to five whole dollars a gig once you do all the averaging out. But, again, are you gonna tell me that a single missed email costing half an hour of a professor's time is actually worth less than five dollars?

Seriously?

There are two types of IT people -- people who realize that their job is to make other people more productive, and people who don't. I hope I never have to interact with your university's IT department.
 
@Shane in Utah

Read "Getting Things Done" by David Allen.
 
At my educational institution, my email account is limited to 10 MB total, including attachments. Keeping that inbox purged is essential, especially as administrators have more (or possibly unlimited) space and frequently send out memos as Microsoft Word documents that take 300kB for a paragraph that could have been simple text in the body of the email…[1]

As well, the total server space I have for all other storage is 500 MB, because administration decided that all teachers needed to store was a few word-processed documents. Sure we're supposed to use modern instructional technology, spice up our lessons with video clips, etc… but getting them to give us the space to store these wonders has proven impossible. Hasn't stopped them complaining that we aren't keeping up with the times, mind you.


[1] In fact, usually the messages from administration are only attachments, which means you have to open a second program to read them.
 
jldugger wrote:
Most of which should already be being done. The larger marginal increase in disk rate can mainly be attributed to "enterprisey" purchasing policies. Amazon offers storage at 15 cents a gigabyte. I leave it as an exercise to the reader how a university can expect to pay upwards of 10 dollars per gigabyte.
Most of it's already being done and the incremental cost is typically small until you hit one of those step functions where you have to make a large purchase to add that next GB.

However, your university doesn't have the economies of scale that Amazon or Google does and I don't know anywhere you can buy hard disks at 15 cents/GB. It costs more than 15 cents/GB to make hard disks. Amazon can sell storage at that price, but it's a loss leader until storage prices come down.

Some moron wrote:
Dude, I worked in IT. If you're paying five figures a gig, it's not my fault you're insanely stupid.Moron, read what I wrote, not what you imagine in your insane head.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
Dr. Crazy wrote: "I fantasize about emails from students magically going into folders for each class I teach. I even tried to set it up like this one semester early on in this gig. The problem? I teach around a hundred students in a semester, and I teach four different classes. The amount of time it takes to set this up (especially since I'd need to do it every semester - it's not just like set it up once and forget about it) seems like a waste to me. Add to this that students don't necessarily email from their university accounts, don't necessarily put the course number in the subject line of emails (or any other identifying information) and, well... trying to organize this sort of system is maddening."

I have a radical suggestion: create four different gmail accounts, one for each course, then use Outloook to incorporate all four addresses together in the same interface. This basically turns each gmail address into a "folder", which was what you were looking for, I think.

There's probably a much more straightforward way of doing this, but I'm no software engineer.
 
I'll be honest: I'm used to being an inbox slob now. I suspect I'll stick with this "system" in spite of my fantasies of organization :)
 
my gmail personal account is piled for the most part, with a couple of folders for things like Scouts, listserv mailings filtered out, etc. The storage isn't unlimited - 7321.932203M at last look. For someone who emails a lot of pictures, that limit is reachable.
Also, I have the gmail offline enabled, so I can back it up myself as well. I fundamentally don't trust a Cloud..

My work account is Outlook, and it's filed - inbox currently at 14. Outlook's search is pitiful. Trying to find something in the 8G pile of Outlook .pst files I have, is painfully slow. I have Lookout installed which helps, but that product is not being maintained.

In the old days, biographers/historians had letters to work from. Now I wonder how they will manage with email..
 
The CC I work at says we are ONLY allowed to use the college e-mail and not any other e-mail, which sucks for Gmail users. what I love most about our private college email is the it doesn't delete your spam or your deleted items when you delete them. You have to go through a delete them one more time, so your allotted space can be totally full all because you never thought to delete the spam it already quarantined.
 
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