Email's Ten by Ten Law


I drown in email and my aspirations for handling it are becoming increasingly lame. In the 1980s my goal used to be an empty mailbox at the end of each session. During the 1990s the goal became to empty the mailbox by the end of the day. But tasks I couldn't complete within the day accumulated, so in the 2000s I just tried to have only so many messages as could fit in a window without a scrollbar, so that I could immediately scan what I had to do. Nowadays my modest goal is to keep the size of my mailbox below 100 messages, and I succeed in that only half of the time.

Being a prodigious packrat I have archives of all my email going back to 1986, so I set out to measure the number of messages I handle and file each year. This number doesn't include mailing lists or messages that are too trivial to file (typically those on which I'm only in the Cc list), but includes the messages I send. Thunderbird, my email client, stores messages in a text format, so it was easy to count them using the following Unix command line.

find mail -type f |
grep -v .msf |
xargs grep '^Date' |
awk '$5 > 100 {print $5} $5 <100 {print $5 + 1900}' |
sort |
uniq -c

As you can see from the chart below, the number of messages I handle keeps increasing year after year.

Number of email messages per year (linear scale)

Worse, plotting the same numbers on a log scale shows that the number of messages increases by a factor of ten every ten years.

Number of email messages per year (log scale)

The orange line illustrates this ten year trend: in 1986 I handled 142 messages, in 1996 1422, and in 2006 I filed 14770 messages. During the past three years the number of messages has been slightly below the trend, which may indicate that I'm reaching some sort of physical limit. So what is the situation with you? What tools and techniques are you using to handle the email deluge?

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Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 10:52 am

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