Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Cluttered Computer Problem

Email is a wonderful research tool. I find a reference, look it up, and fire off an email to find out more about the topic. I add the note to my manuscript and go on, completely ignoring the source of the information. It seems automatic to document information from articles and books, but impossible to be equally as thorough with the emails. It’s because I save the emails, knowing the computer can find the item I need easily. What I hadn’t realized is how quickly my computer got cluttered, to the point that even it couldn’t find all the things I’d stashed in various folders under different names. If I don’t remember the name or key word in a message, it hides forever.

Another problem was changing ISPs when I moved. The emails stayed in the folders set up with the previous provider. I wasn’t able to access them all. So I finally hired someone to come over and get all my emails in one place. I wound up with about 5000 emails to and from all sorts of people. The only useful thing was that in most queries I had put the name of my subjects—Haders or Berta and Elmer Hader--in the subject line. Most (but not all) replies repeated what I had used. Unfortunately, sometimes I used a different subject, because the Haders were not the main focus. Such as finding information on impressionism, or miniature painting, or a particular friend.

So the last month or so has been spent tediously going through every email, deleting and/or moving every single one. Not fun!

Some were easy. Long ago I told friends that I would never pass on anything that would promise rewards, prevent disasters, or improve the world. I‘d deleted every funny that came in if it required going somewhere else like YouTube to open. However I’d saved far too many other funny cartoons and sayings sent to me by well-meaning friends. I’d gotten the first chuckle out of them—did I think there’d be more?

A few shortcuts helped get rid of another thousand or so. I first:

1) sorted the emails by the date column. Most of the ones before 2009 (when I started this project) were out of date. It was relatively easy to go through those earlier ones and toss them. Sometimes there was a date or a new address, and I noted those down on a piece of paper. (Yes, paper still makes my world go round.)

Then I
2) sorted the remaining emails by the sender column. That made it easy to go through and delete political messages, offers I’d kept to think about, notes pertaining to old newsletters I had edited and so on. I also was able to get rid of most of the “funnies” sent by friends, since most of them came from the same dozen people.

3) Sort # 3 was by subject. This worked well since the remaining emails were now ordered by subject, sender, and date. I found plenty of political messages, invitations to join newsletters from writer friends and organizations, magazine sales pitches and others I’d missed on the first go around, and more subjects I didn’t recognize. I used some of the subjects to set up mailboxes. Anything relating to the Haders went into a mailbox with that label. I labeled another one “IMPORTANT”: airline reservations, orders not yet received, items that needed immediate follow-through. Others were for family, friends, research items such as useful websites, possible publishers for other writings, and so forth. You’ll know what you need...and never want to see again.

4) For emails containing only a tidbit of something useful, I copied the tidbit to a computer sticky note or a “FOLLOW UP” blank page for things to do later. With the date on the note, I had an organized list—easy to check off or file later.

I was surprised how much info was hidden in the email clutter. I still have another thousand to go through, and more arrives every day. I’m debating about using the e-computer to automatically send things to smart mailboxes, but I’m afraid I might not never even notice them there. In many ways this paperless trail is too easy to ignore. With paper, I eventually have to face the paper piles or I can’t move!

Anyone have any more ideas for managing the computer flow?

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