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Besides through thoughtfulness, e-mail birth control can be achieved with office procedures, like an easy-to-use and socially accepted method for getting your name permanently removed from mailing lists; or a prize for the worker who, in the eyes of fellow employees, exhibits the “best e-mail behavior.”

More can be done at the destination: Filters, built into mail-handling programs, can let people designate what messages to throw out, or channel to other people automatically, based on sender’s name, topic or other such information. Unsolicited e-mail may be placed in suspense mailboxes and reviewed at a later time, or not at all, or until and if a second request is received from the same sender. Requiring that all telemarketing e-mail be tagged, for example with the new metadata capabilities of the Web, would be another good way to control unsolicited messages, not only for blocking them but also for letting through the ones you want.

Even as it overloads us, e-mail helps us work better, receive the opinions and suggestions of our peers, and assess the pulse of our organization. To sustain these benefits while increasing my own productivity, I have constructed an array of electronic pushbuttons, using a program called Quick Keys. Each button inserts a preset message informing the recipient of my conclusion or question, forwards the annotated message to the designated party, and removes the mail from the incoming message queue-all with one click. As a result, my per-message average has dropped to about one minute. Measures like these can be helpful, but only for the short term.

For the long haul, we must go beyond all of the above tactics to understand and follow this basic principle:

Just because we have become electronically interconnected, we have not acquired the automatic right to send a message to anyone we wish, nor the automatic obligation to respond to every message we receive.

Ultimately, if e-mail overload becomes intolerable, “survival” will kick in and we’ll trash everything in sight, as we should. After all, the principal role of information is not to be an end goal, but a means toward satisfying human needs and purposes. Let’s keep it that way.

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