David Knopf: Email onslaught needs an umpire’s call

05/13/2014 12:00 AM

05/12/2014 8:42 AM

For the good of all concerned, it’s time I cleaned up the email act — you know, before someone gets hurt.

Maybe there’s a Betty Ford Center that helps people dry out and confess they no longer read email, but only delete them or move them to folders so they don’t have to look at them.

I have more folders than the Dewey Decimal system has categories.

I figure all is good if I have fewer than 30 messages in my inbox. This doesn’t happen often, and when it does, I let my guard down after all that arduous decision-making and next thing I know there are 47 messages in my inbox, another 64 in my work account and probably 4,000-something in an account I rarely use but can’t shake.

Email used to be about communicating, but now it’s just another nag telling me I’m an irresponsible slacker.

I’m pelted by email 24/7/365. If you’re like me and can’t keep up, you either make excuses or threaten to go off-grid and live in a miner’s cabin in the hills.

The email conundrum puzzles me because I used to be an umpire and had no trouble making quick decisions. It’s not like pitches can pile up, waiting for the umpire to finally get around to deciding if they’re balls or strikes. There are no folders marked “borderline low” or “belt high.”

You make the call then and move on to the next pitch. It’s how I’d like to deal with email.

The culprit is that hopeful, optimistic part of me, the one that says, “That might be something I could use later.” I’m in the news business, and story ideas are like lottery tickets to a retiree.

But realistically, I hardly ever act on these mirage-like inspirations, and they wind up in my inbox, nagging me and making me feel indecisive.

I’ve learned to deal with them by creating folders — in reality, hermetically sealed, crypt-like vaults where ideas go to die — next to my inbox. At last count, my work account had something like 174 storage categories, including one simply labeled “possible stories to procrastinate over later.”

As the categories add up, I lose track of the ones I’ve already created and make new ones that overlap or are identical, but named differently.

To keep better track of my latest storage brainstorm, I put a series of gibberish symbols in front of the file name, for example “$%$ River Barge Traffic.” No matter what the first letter of the file is, the gibberish pushes it up to the top of the list, temporarily preventing slow Death by Storage.

Someday, I hope to actually care about what emails say. But if I were to read each one and seriously consider a course of action, I’d never get anything done. Either that, or I’d get everything done in no particular order, one email at a time.

One of my current go-to folders is labeled “AG Stories,” which is where maybe 30 or so email a day are sentenced to LIFE (Life Imprisoned in a Folder Eternally), with no chance for parole.

Of course, there are some email that matter to me, for example, complimentary personal notes from readers or those “20 Percent off Your Entire Bill” at Perkins coupons. But those are few and far in between.

If I could have 30 of those in my inbox at one time, it would be like umpiring a game where the pitcher throws only strikes. It’s not likely to happen, but if it did I’d file it under “&%$ Perfect Game.”

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