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Taming the E-mail Beast

If ever there was an individual with a handle on that infernal problem of excess e-mail in her inbox, that person would be my sister, Chrystal. On any given day, she's got, let's say, 10 messages she's even willing to open and investigate; fewer still for which she'll venture a reply.

"How do you manage that?" I ask, marveling at her capacity to ignore folks' e-mails straight up, not worrying in the least about missing some earth-changing information by relegating the receiving and sending of e-mail to Number 79 on her list of priorities.

"I tell them," she says, "that unless you know it's something I need to look at, don't send it to me. I don't want to read all those cutesy little poems and stuff like that."

My sister is no slave to e-mail. She's got it right.

So do the stressed-out minds pushing to transform Friday into the one day of the workweek that is relatively e-mail-free: Pick up the phone and call a colleague, march right over to her cubicle, say what you must say, build a bond, help a friend get his face out of the computer screen and the kink out of his shoulder from all that hunched-over typing. That's the message these e-mail-free Friday innovators and followers are promoting.

Their strategy got front-page play in at least one national newspaper, which also reported that researchers have tallied the daily onslaught of person-to-person e-mails. In our nation, person-to-person e-mails have rat-a-tatted up to 39.7 billion a day. The barrage of automated alerts has fired up to 17.1 billion a day. Spam comes in at a rate of 40.5 billion pieces; and don't you feel like torturing those slimy, stealthy solicitors with 10 trillion pinpricks to the soles of their feet? We're talking billions here. Daily.

Keeping up with a mountain of e-mail is difficult to juggle against all else there remains to do in any given 24 hours, essential stuff like eating and sleeping, managing mates and children and pets, and the piles of snail mail delivered by human hands.

I know what I'm talking about. Over the course of a recent week, I dedicated myself to becoming a better administrator of my writing and personal life; I whittled the twin peaks of important and unimportant e-mail in my own inbox from 736 to 249. This was no narrow feat; this was a seismic achievement. This took me hours, which I spread across several days, for handling e-mail can make you cockeyed if you're not careful.

The exercise also led to the realization that, since there will always be e-mail, I might feel less chained to inboxes, sent items boxes, deleted items and assorted other folders if I made some simple allowances. If, at any time, for example, my inbox holds 100 or fewer e-mails, I can manage that with a minimum of fretting and stress. My anti-e-mail resolve is nowhere near my sister's, but I can, as much as my particular work and personal life permits, inch closer to where she is. Also, I can try to bring some folks along.

"One time, I had more than 1,200 e-mails I hadn't opened," said Agnolia, a woman in my trio of best friends.

I was querying her about e-mail enslavement. We were dining the other day at a restaurant near where homeless people, people without home computers, out-of-towners, workers on lunch breaks and others queue up to use the public library's free Internet access. Because my sister still has dial-up Internet service — this is part of her private rebellion — and I bunk at her house on visits home, I sometimes get in line at the library. Like most others, I'm trying hard not to get behind the eight ball when it comes to e-mail.

There's a shared blame for this personal and societal imprisonment to spread around. And it's about time we helped rein one another in, telling those who pass along, say, e-mails intended to brighten someone's day — or to inspire or to convince an individual to return to the sender and nine other people a message to solidify that group of 10 — to knock it off.

These e-mailed things, the unessential, often dumb stuff my sister refuses to tolerate, a person can and should do without.

We can tame the electronic beast — one e-mail at a time.

Taming the E-mail Beast