A Lot Has Changed In A Century, But Not Everything

Randall Stross’ Digital Domain column in the NY Times is one of my favorite regular features of the Times. This week he tackles an issue near and dear to my heart: email overload.

For a brief period last year, I was the poster boy of email bankruptcy because the media picked up on this post and it percolated for a month or two, including landing in my parents home town paper. They got a chuckle out of seeing my name in their daily read.

Fortunately, the poster boys (at least for Randall) are now Mike Arrington and Mark Cuban. Based on the numbers that Randall cites for Mike and Mark’s incoming email, I can say that I do feel their pain, literally. I get that kind of volume too.

And let me tell you, there is only one workable solution that I’ve ever heard to deal with 1000 incoming emails a day that all want a reply. It’s turning your inbox over to an assistant or a group of assistants as Randall points out that Thomas Edison did:

This was the solution  Thomas Edison
used in pre-electronic times to handle a mismatch between 100,000-plus
unsolicited letters and a single human addressee. Not all
correspondents would receive a reply — a number were filed in what
Edison called his “nut file.” But most did get a written letter from
Edison’s office, prepared by men who were full-time secretaries. They
became skilled in creating the impression that Edison had taken a
personal interest in whatever topic had prompted the correspondent to
write.

I am not going to do that. I believe that if people wanted a note from my super nice assistant, they would send her the email not me.

I do forward many of the emails that come to me with new investment opportunities to Andrew who does a way better job than I do at replying to all of them. But even then, I don’t always get to every email so not everyone gets to Andrew.

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Randall talks quite a bit about HL Mencken who apparently answered every letter he received on the day he received it. I think a lot has changed in the century (or at least the half century) since HL was doing that.

First, the letters he was responding to were written once and sent. There was no write once, send many technology working it’s nasty effects on his inbox back then.

And the time delay between sending and recieving letters meant that letter writing was saved for things that were not urgent. We have the opposite effect at work now. Urgent emails are missed because of all the email that is not urgent and may not even be relevant.

And of course, I don’t do email with a cigar in my mouth. Maybe I should.

But there is one thing that Menken said that rings true to me and may be the source of my email anxiety.

“If I write to a man on any proper business and he fails to answer me at once, I set him down as a boor and an ass.”

I am sure that every day people are setting me down as a boor and an ass and that’s a problem. Without a solution as far as I can see.