SERIES: EMAIL DISEASES: HOW THEY AFFECT YOUR LIFE AND HOW YOU CAN AVOID THEM (ISSUE 4: TOTAL INFORMATION OVERLOAD or EMAIL IN-BOX APOCALYPSE)

Kaboom

In an age where we have so many options for communicating, we rarely communicate. I mean, yeah – we all still talk to each other – but do we really communicate? If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time on Total Information Overload (T.I.O. – Remember that; I’ll use it again) and sometimes, especially in times of high-stress or high-emotion, T.I.O. is, quite literally, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You know what I mean. It’s the “If I have to deal with/fix/listen to/solve one more problem I’m gonna [insert your own descriptor here]” symptom of a greater issue.

All that being said, at this point we’re only going to get busier. Information is going to continue to flow faster and faster. Things will change so rapidly we’ll eventually be buying new tech every other week as our “old” tech continues to become obsolete just so we can keep up. It’s maddening.

I know when I’m in T.I.O., I tend to shut down. I remove myself from most social media; I don’t write anything I don’t absolutely have to write; I don’t read anything I don’t absolutely have to read; I don’t talk to anyone I don’t absolutely have to talk to. I’m not being mean or even truly anti-social; I’m in full self-preservation mode. To be honest, my withdrawal is probably more for the sake of those around me than for my own. Heaven only knows what might come out of my mouth on an off day – or even an off minute.

You: Where in the heck is she going with this?

Me: I do realize I’ve taken the long way around the barn and I’m currently at risk of running away with the horse. Please hang in there.

You: <sigh> Okay.

(Truth be told, this could be considered – at least in part – a continuation of Tananda’s “Skimmers and Non-Readers” article from several months ago. But it’s also more than that.)

Let me simplify. What is, for all intents and purposes, the most commonly used form of business communication these days? That’s right! Good for you! It’s email. We’re absolutely inundated by, and totally dependent upon, email. I know I am, at any rate. Sometimes it’s next to impossible to weed through it all, and yes, sometimes things get missed. But in my case (and I can truly only speak for myself here) things aren’t missed because I’m lazy. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I miss things because I’m overwhelmed. Total. Information. Overload. I work very hard to make sure I accurately take stock of the information which has been communicated to me and disseminate it appropriately.

Perhaps one has an email which informs one of the date and time of an upcoming event, but the information on said event is buried among the verbiage weeds. You literally have to dig through the barrage of words to find the pertinent information. Even the best of us struggle with such a task. (With apologies, we so-called “writers” – because I would never condescend to truly call myself a writer – tend to err on the side of being overly verbose.)

Let’s pretend you’re like me – a very busy administrative assistant – trying to make heads or tails of not only your own email, but your boss’s in-box as well. Now, let’s pretend you’ve become involved in a chain of back-and-forth emails between yourself, and another (at least one other) individual. Pay attention here:

From:                    Them

To:                          You

Subject:               Quarterly Report

Hey – just checking in to see how that report is going.

_____

From:                    You

To:                          Them

Subject:               RE: Quarterly Report

Hi. Great! Just putting the finishing touches on it. It should be in your in-box by noon.

_____

From:                    Them

To:                          You

Subject:               RE: RE: Quarterly Report

Fantastic. Thanks!

On another note, do you think you’d be able to help with the annual fundraiser this fall?

_____

From:                    You

To:                          Them

Subject:               RE: RE: RE: Quarterly Report

Sure, I don’t see why not. Send me the details.

OK – enough pretend; back to reality now.

You just witnessed one example of something the organizationally challenged abhor. At least, this organizationally challenged individual abhors it. One might even go so far as to call it a peeve, though I think that’s stretching it. Silly, but true.

You:       What in the heck is she talking about? That email exchange looks fine to me!

Me:        Be patient, my young Padawan.

Notice, if you will, the subject change? No, not in the actual subject line – ah ha! – but in the body of the email. Now, consider a few months down the road “Them” comes back to you and says, “…but you said you’d help with the annual fundraiser!” after you’ve publically announced you’d be taking a short leave of absence. And you, being the conscientious person you are, go back to check because you can’t really recall what you’ve committed to and, though you know something came through about it, the details are a little fuzzy. (Hey, it’s months later; you can hardly remember what you had for dinner the night before!) Do you believe you could quickly and accurately find this little gem among the overwhelming number of emails which have hit your in-box since the original request?

I don’t care how diligent you are, how organized you are, or how good your memory is. This would be nearly like trying to uncover the proverbial needle from the proverbial haystack.  But – what if you took the same exchange (I won’t reiterate it) and changed the subject to Annual Fundraiser when you hit “Reply” that last time? Not only would it make your life easier, it would make searching it out several months later easier as well. It would also accurately represent the content of the email and document the subject change.

Furthermore, upon separating the wheat from the chaff, you realize that yes, you’d been asked to help with the annual fundraiser, but your request for further details was accidentallyonpurpose ignored and therefore you have nothing further to go on except the original agreement to assist. Therefore, the “argument” in question is invalid. You win.

Yeah, yeah – I know. Asking folks to change the subject in the subject line of an email would be like asking people to reinvent the wheel, or rediscover fire, or relearn how to breathe in O2 and breathe out CO2. And anyway, it was just a suggestion.

Let’s take this one very confusing step further, shall we? We’re going to pretend, for the sake of this argument, there are seven people involved in the email exchange above. Seven. Not a couple, not a few, more than several, but not a lot. It starts innocuously, asking about the status of the Quarterly Report, and then morphs into a request to assist with the fall fundraiser. Are you with me so far? And with responses from the seven folks who all agree to help with the fundraiser, you now have multiple answers, suggestions on what to do, ideas, themes, colors schemes, rules, a ridiculous amount of Reply-to-All instances which have quickly gotten out of hand (thank you very much) and suddenly your in-box is not just overwhelmed, but on the verge of exploding; you along with it. Most unfortunately, there is no possible way to stem the tide at this point. The email has taken on a life of its own and all you can do is hang on and hope you don’t get crushed.

Six weeks down the road, someone asks, “Hey, who came up with the idea of putting glitter on all the banquet table centerpieces? I’d like to give them a piece of my mind! I’m covered with glitter. I think I may even be pooping glitter. My 4 year old daughter thinks I’ve been hanging out with unicorns and fairies.”

Yeah. Good luck with that.

The bottom line is, in a post email in-box apocalypse, there is no hope of ever effectively going back to find out who came up with what idea because, guess what? The subject line still says “Quarterly Report” and didn’t have anything to do with fundraising.

Or glitter.

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