OPINION: Show your inbox who's boss

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

August reminds us of what life was like before email. On holiday we revert to penning postcards. And when back in the office, as the tidal wave of messages dwindles to a mere trickle, there's a chance to catch up on unread messages, browse previously ignored attachments and search for some advice on how to manage email overload.

It turns out that there are entire web sites devoted to the problem.

You can learn how to keep your email system tidy, deal with each message just once, anticipate requests for information and set up automated replies.

And while I come to terms with my 60-a-day email habit, I can take comfort in discovering that my problem is relatively paltry.

A report out this month from George Washington University documents the massive explosion in electronic communication between US citizens and Congress. The number of email messages reaching the House of Representatives has risen to 48 million a year and continues to grow by an average of one million messages each month. Citizens are questioning the responsiveness of US politicians, as their requests for information remain buried in email inboxes.

While the scale of the email overload facing Congress is elephantine by any standard, the consequences for its workforce are likely to be familiar to organisations of all sizes: the increased pace of work, the stress of near-instant communication, the decline in face-to-face contact. What charity hasn't seen a shift in the way it works as a result of the email revolution?

While we have embraced many of the advantages that the explosion in electronic communication has brought, it seems we have yet to adequately address some of the disadvantages. Email overload and its consequences are rapidly becoming priority issues for all organisations.

The number of emails exchanged each day is predicted to increase to 36 billion by 2005 from its current level of eight billion. Can we learn to manage our email better or will we ultimately have to try and limit our use of it? Answers on a snail-mail postcard please.

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