Email liberated us from the age of stamps and envelopes, but these days users grouse that this "timesaver" offering near-instant communications has become our digital tyrant.
An engineer first used the "@" symbol to send a message across a computer network in 1971.
Since then, email has gradually insinuated itself into our daily routines, leaving us barely a moment to assess its outsized impact.
A few sobering data points:
- A study by The Radicati Group Inc. estimated that 2021's worldwide daily email traffic of 319.6 billion will grow to 376.4 billion by 2025;
- A 2012 analysis by McKinsey Global Institute of IDC data found that office workers spent more than a quarter of their workweek reading and answering emails;
- A 2019 Adobe Email Usage Study reported that respondents devoted more than three hours a day dealing with work emails and two hours more on personal email.
Adobe found that the 1,002 adults surveyed checked email during work meetings, while eating, while driving, in bed and, yes, in the bathroom.
Yet fewer than half were able to regularly clear their inboxes, a state known as "inbox zero."
One 2011 academic study in the journal Information & Management found increased "addiction" to mobile email correlated with the likelihood of family strife.
That said, not everyone is resigned to dance to email's tune. Some Long Islanders are harnessing technology, discipline and organization to show their inbox who's boss.
"There's a lot more going on in life than email," said Lisa Russac, a graphic artist, entrepreneur and email strategist. "You have to tame this email beast."
Like many Long Islanders, Paul Trapani plays multiple roles: president of the Long Island Software & Technology Network (LISTnet); entrepreneur (PassTech Development LLC); adjunct professor (New York Institute of Technology); and private citizen.
But when it comes to email, Trapani likes to shift among accounts in a single, unified window.
"I would be lost without a product called Shift (tryshift.com) that lets you access documents on different accounts ... without having to log in independently," he said.
Other email programs, including those from Apple, Google and Microsoft, let users add accounts from other companies, but don't provide full access to the folders, directories and other services available via direct access.
Trapani, who gets several hundred emails on some days, also saves time by using keyboard shortcuts instead of searching for menu items. For instance, instead of searching for the "bold" symbol in Gmail's formatting bar, a user would type Control+b to start bold text and Control+b to exit bold text.
Rather than try to recall the dozens of shortcuts for each program, Trapani pursues unity, setting his Microsoft account to use the same keyboard shortcuts as his Google account. (For a listing of Gmail shortcuts on desktop, press Shift+?.)
For Robert Stricoff, chief development officer of EAC Network, a Hempstead-based social service agency, indecision is not an option. At least not when it comes to dealing with the roughly 300 emails he receives daily.
"Time is money, even in the not-for-profit world," he said. "There's got to be a three-second rule. Within three seconds you respond, delete or forward [the email] for someone else to respond."
He takes care of pressing emails at work, but he uses "quiet time" at night to unsubscribe to mailing lists.
"If I didn't unsubscribe and junk, I'd have 1,000 emails a day," he said.
Sloth is to blame for the sheer volume of email, Stricoff said.
"People think email is a shortcut to a relationship," he said. "Email is for lazy people. Success is having a meeting. Email is a measure of output, not outcome."
Phil Andrews, president of the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce Inc., spends about three hours a day going through email in the hope he can save time when retrieving the messages.
He organizes emails for rapid retrieval by categorizing them and putting them in folders and subfolders.
He pays for Google's premium Workspace service (formerly G Suite), which affords more storage and other features.
That storage is needed for the 206,000 emails he has filed away.
Google's spam filter eliminates some useless emails, allowing Andrews to focus on sorting and responding to relevant email.
No email goes unopened, he said, and "everything is organized."
THE RULE MAKER
Some email users follow a four D's philosophy: Delete it, Do it, Delegate it or Defer it.
Those who live by that credo should consider setting up a system of automatic email rules, said Chris Caradonna, senior director for IT enterprise support services at Henry Schein Inc.
"By applying rules, you're able to immediately identify what action is required while bringing an organizational structure to reviewing and responding to emails," he said.
For instance, right-clicking an email in Microsoft Outlook allows a user to take emails from a particular sender or with a certain subject line to get an alert sound, display the email in an alert window or file it in a specific folder.
Outlook also lets users quickly add a flag to emails, scheduling a follow-up at the date they choose.
To cope with the ever-increasing mail flow, Caradonna urges colleagues to take 10 or 15 minutes a week to unsubscribe to nonessential emails.
"Deleting isn't enough," he said. "You have to unsubscribe if you want to remove your name from the sender's database."
Email is far from the only channel for workplace communication. Caradonna said that Millennials and Gen Xers "tend to gravitate" toward chat software like Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Henry Schein encourages employees to use the chat and video functions of Teams to supplement email and text messaging, he said.
For many workers, the goal is to have a "clean" inbox. They check their inboxes throughout the day (and night) in pursuit of that elusive target.
"I used to be that person," said Russac, the graphic artist. "The minute I'd leave work, there were 25 emails in my inbox. I was giving myself so much anxiety."
One day, she came to an epiphany: "What would happen if I left them?"
What she discovered was that the issues either resolved themselves or she took care of them later.
Russac's dose of reality: 80% of emails are junk, work announcements, reply-to-alls, meeting invitations or references to issues that have already been ironed out.
Russac's cardinal rule is to start at the top of the inbox, whether you worked yesterday or are returning from an extended vacation. Then choose the three issues that are most urgent and focus on those.
"Do not move on to anything else till those are complete," she said. "If something [else] is pressing, the sender will message or call."
Trying to reply to all the emails in an overstuffed inbox is a losing game, Russac said. "You're really robbing the moment of what you're supposed to be concentrating on."
So what happens to that email pileup?
Some email users embrace (or surrender to) their overstuffed email accounts, a philosophy known as "inbox infinity." The thesis: Not all emails require a response.
Russac takes a middle ground. She schedules three daily email cleanup sessions beyond those three pressing issues, 15 minutes (maximum) in the morning, 15 minutes (maximum) after lunch and 15 minutes (maximum) before the end of the day.
Another Russac email rule: Avoid "round-robin" emails that go back and forth. If the exchanges go to more than three emails, pick up the phone.
One thing Russac refuses to do is let the size of her inbox, which may include some personal emails and Facebook notifications as well, dictate her life.
"If the numbers [in her inbox] are ticking up, I'll say, 'Whatever.' ... Nobody died because you didn't wish them happy birthday on their Facebook page."
THE SCREEN SAVER
A little extra digital real estate is never a bad idea. Beth Meixner, founder of Moxxie Network LLC, a women's business networking group, devotes one of her three monitors to email, eliminating the need to open and close screens. To avoid the distracting pings of landing email, she simply mutes the sound.
Keeping email accounts secure may take a few seconds extra, but getting hacked will take a lot more time.
Steven C. Morgan, founder of Cybercrime Magazine in Northport, suggests multi-factor authentication. MFA requires a step beyond the simple username and password. It can require entering a code texted to a phone, inserting a physical device into a computer port or using another verification method.
"Way too many people don't like the extra step and time involved with logging in," Morgan said. "They are usually the ones you read about in the papers."
THE AI GURU
Brad Gruber, president of Hauppauge-based natural pet food manufacturer Health Extension LLC, had a long-simmering feud with email.
"For me, emails were one of my greatest sources of frustration," he said. "On an average day, I get 500 emails. On a busy day, 1,000."
Gruber decided to fight technology with technology.
He subscribed to Superhuman (superhuman.com), an app that runs on top of Google's Gmail and has the explicit goal of bringing users to "inbox zero."
The paid service uses artificial intelligence to conduct what Superhuman calls email "triage," filtering and deleting subscriptions and marketing messages and surfacing messages with high importance.
"Most of us flag emails or leave them unread," Gruber said. "This removes them or schedules them to come back to you."
Bottom line: Gruber said the software has made his email life more manageable.
"It's $30 a month," Gruber said. "It's not the cheapest, but for a dollar a day, it's worth it. The ROI [return on investment] is there. I'd say it has saved me at least an hour a day. ...It's a game changer."
Those seeking email time savers without additional expense can consider downloading the free extensions available for Outlook and Gmail or employing the rich features offered by the programs themselves.
Both of the widely used email programs offer keyboard shortcuts and options for sorting emails in a variety of ways that can surface emails with high importance or identify those that can be deleted en masse.
Do you have a great email tip? Email email@example.com to extend the conversation.