Email Overload: How Soon Can I Get Back to You?


You’ve Got Mail!

Anyone with an email account gets flooded with stuff that you simply don’t care to see, don’t need to read, and can’t bear to respond to. That’s a general problem. This problem works out in different ways for different people. Whatever the scenario, it creates a challenge to efficient email management, which is crucial to general time management, which is crucial to personal sanity.

youve_got_mail_ver3What about unsolicited email from unknown parties with legitimate questions you may be able to help with?

This I encounter on a regular basis. There are two basic reasons for this.

First, people learn of my interests and expertise from the books I write and the public speaking I do. I also blog and have a Facebook and Twitter presence. I write and speak about film, books, events, the existence of God, faith and reason, science and religion, kayaking, miracles, epistemology, faith and reason, motorcycling, cultural engagement, politics, and other things that I can think of right now. As you might imagine, there others in the world who have similar interests.

Second, after speaking on a topic and meeting with people to discuss their questions, I will frequently encourage them to contact me for more about a topic, for individual discussion, for reading recommendations, etc. I actually give them my email address. But I always ask them to remind me when and where we met.

My colleagues are good about checking with me before giving out my contact information, so I’m pretty much in the driver’s seat on that one. Still, my email address is pretty easily discoverable. Maybe the FBI can’t figure it out, but I’m sure you can.

Let me shoot straight about a couple of things:

  • I like hearing from people with legitimate questions, perspectives, requests, and invitations to speak.
  • I have to control the flow of input/output so that I can reply to worthy inquiries.

Much of this is up to me. But I have a few suggestions that may help two groups of people: (1) those who face the same challenge, and (2) those trying to get through with legitimate email messages.

Speaking for myself, it’s more likely that I’ll respond, and respond quickly, if:

  1. You write a very specific, descriptive subject heading.
  2. You keep your message brief.
  3. You’re very specific and clear about why I’m the guy you thought you should write.
  4. I remember you from a pervious meeting.
  5. I know in advance that you’ve been referred to me by someone I respect.
  6. You demonstrate that you’ve spent your own valuable time looking elsewhere for help on your topic.
  7. You acknowledge that I may not be able to respond immediately, or even later on.
  8. You’re offering me $10,000, and all expenses paid, to speak for 30 minutes someplace on this planet.

Note: If you’re a past student of mine, you get priority over all other cold messages that come my way. If I know it’s you, you will hear from me!

Here are some question types that dissuade me from responding:

  1. Can you answer a few short questions for me?
  2. Can you recommend a book about . . . ?
  3. I read your book about . . . and I disagree with it. What is your response?
  4. Will you please send me a complimentary copy of your book on . . .?
  5. Will you please help me build my library with books you don’t need anymore?
  6. I’d like to have an email discussion with you about . . . . (Not technically a question.)
  7. Can I drop by your office sometime to chat?
  8. A friend of a friend of a friend of mine suggested that I contact you about . . . . (Especially don’t do this if all of the above “friends” are Facebook friends you’ve never met.)

[I did once get an email message and a phone call from a guy in New Zealand who said he was leaving on a world tour and would like to meet with me when he was in Los Angeles. I said yes. But that guy happened to be Michael Denton, whose book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis I had read. He’d read my book on God and evil and wanted to talk about the problem of evil. We did and we became friends.]

None of this is intended to scare people off from writing me. I really do welcome email that deserves the attention and time a responsible answer would take. And if you’re reading this—and we both know you are—you’re probably one of those people who should feel free to contact me. The guidelines I suggested here will help single you out from the rest of the pack and elicit a timely response.

One More Thing . . . .

I read every comment I get at this website and I respond to virtually every comment. So keep those comments rolling in! If you have other suggestions for quality email communication, how about sharing them here?

Other Sources on This Topic

These guys helped me with ideas for this post:

Adam Grant, “6 Ways to Get Me to Email You Back”

Tim Ferriss, “5 Tips for Emailing Busy People”

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Paperless Sounds Good and Is Almost Possible


Fujitsu ScanSnap S510

Fujitsu ScanSnap S510

For about a year now I’ve been using a remarkable tool for paperless research, writing, record storage and dog grooming (well, maybe not dog grooming). It’s the Fujitsu ScanSnap S510. And I like it for lots of reasons that may strike a chord with you.

  • It’s compact, with a footprint of 5.5″ x 11.5″ and a height of about 7″, until the feeder tray is opened (at which point it grows about 4 inches taller).
  • It plugs into the USB port on my laptop (or USB hub connected to my laptop), allowing all scans to slip easily into electronic nirvana.
  • It feeds standard-size documents and scans both sides on one pass. This is not a flatbed scanner. You load the document into it the same way you do with a FAX machine. A multi-page document can be loaded all at once and scanned as a single file.
  • The software that comes with the S510 allows me to save my scanned files as PDF documents.
  • It plays nicely with Apple.
  • It replaces my FAX machine because I can now scan any document, save it as a PDF (or other) file, and send it as an attachment by email. So it saves space in my office by performing multiple functions and replacing other single-function devices.

I’ve used the ScanSnap S510 to:

  • return documents with my signature;
  • retain copies of receipts and other documents for tax purposes;
  • save typed manuscripts and student papers that include detailed comments I’ve written in margins;
  • store photocopied material on my computer;
  • prepare for writing and research to do while traveling;
  • streamline paper files (and piles).

Signed Documents

Because my work involves payment for speaking engagements and author consulting, I often have to complete and sign documents that are then filed with the IRS by the individual or agency paying for the service. The forms can be sent to me for my signature, then signed, scanned and returned to the sender. The sender has what he needs for his records, and I have a copy in my electronic files.

Copies of all writing contracts can now be kept on my laptop. This is helpful when I need to refer to these documents to recall terms of publication years after a book or article has been published.

Tax Returns

Now I can scan all paperwork needed to complete my tax return each year: receipts, IRS forms, templates used by my tax accountant, even copies of all past returns.

My setup for 2009 begins with a folder on my computer labeled “2009 Taxes.” This folder is subdivided with folders for different kinds of deductible expenses. Individual receipts are scanned, labeled, and filed into these folders. When it’s time to prepare my return for 2009, I just pull everything from these virtual folders. (My tax accountant tells me that most docs that would be needed for an audit can be submitted to the IRS electronically. If they’re stored that way from the outset, it’s ready to go—just in case.)

Marked Manuscripts and Student Papers

I often read manuscripts for other writers and write comments in the margins. Sometimes this is at the request of a publisher. Other times it’s for the author. With the ScanSnap S510 feed scanner, I can keep copies of anything that might be useful to me later. I feel more comfortable writing detailed comments knowing that the ideas I share are permanently captured for future reference.

I find this also works well when marking papers for students. For smaller classes I have more time for more detailed evaluation. I can scan papers that I load up with comments. That way, I have a permanent record of the basis for any grade I assign, and whatever remarks I’ve made in the margins that might be useful in my teaching and other work. Sometimes I scan only select pages.

No More Photocopies

While I haven’t completely eliminated photocopies, I have streamlined my files with electronic versions of photocopied material using the scanner. This makes it easier to find the material when I need it, and have it close to hand rather than at the bottom of some pile or in a file cabinet. When scanning a document, I can assign key words to facilitate searches for that document on my computer. (This is important when scanning and filing handwritten documents.)

Research and Writing on the Road

I’ve found a number of ways to minimize the ordeal of traveling while keeping up with my research and writing. One is to carry fewer books. With my Kindle I can carry a whole library within the compass of a single slender and light-weight volume. My iPhone 3G is equipped to do internet research and gives me access to several specialized applications for the iPhone that help with productivity. With the ScanSnap 510 I’m able to scan papers and documents needed to carry on my research while on the road. Rather than pack a hard copy of some journal article I plan to study, I can now scan the article into my laptop. This takes no more than a few seconds.

From Piling to Filing

The sheer volume of papers I manage for speaking and writing projects can be overwhelming. Paper files are large and unwieldy. With this scanner I can quickly get stacks of paper off my desk (and floor) and into a codifed electronic form. I find that this step of scanning material I may want for future reference helps me winnow the chaff and store only what is truly worthwhile.

For effective winnowing, I often ask myself, “If I trash this item, and I need it later, will I be able to get my hands on it without actually having it take up space in my own files?” It’s amazing how often the answer is yes. (And I usually know the answer sooner than it would take me to utter the question out loud.) I can always create a note for abandoned items using utility software for this purpose. Or I can scan a handwritten note about items I’m tossing, and keep the note where I’ll find it later if needed. The note will lead me to the original material.

Clearing the Decks

One of the best uses of the S510 I’ve found is to scan all of my handwritten pages of “To Do” lists and miscellaneous—and yes, random—ideas. My habit of writing things down quickly leads to piles of handwritten notes. Some pages are dedicated to special topics or projects. Others are simply lists of things to do. And some are a hodge-podge of unrelated items that have fallen onto the page in a meandering stream of consciousness. Over time they pile up. And knowing where to file them has always been a conundrum. Not anymore. The least I can do is get them off my desk and into an electronic format, filed away in a folder of dated items of that sort. I may never return to them, but I know where they are. So this is now something I do periodically when the stack obstructs my vision.

Note: This hack works well in combination with writing, research, productivity, and database software I use: Things, Scrivener, MacJournal, and OmniOutliner. PDF documents can be dropped into files created with these applications. That goes for PDF documents produced using the ScanSnap S510.

Things 1 Icon

Scrivener

Scrivener

MacJournal

MacJournal

OmniOutliner

OmniOutliner

Share your ideas about how you streamline productivity, or leave a brief review of the tools I’ve mentioned in this post.

Get with the Flow


You may have trouble pronouncing his name, but Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is the guru when it comes to “the psychology of optimal experience.” FLOW is one of those books you might want to read once every year or so and dip into periodically for the juicy bits that you’ve marked.

Flow is that state of consciousness when you are contentedly living in the moment, experiencing that energizing balance of three factors: a worthwhile task, significant challenge in performing the task, and the capacity and resources to complete the task.

The book is Csikszentmihaly’s answer to the question, “When do people feel most happy?” He answers:

. . . the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. (p. 3)

The message is that we don’t have to wait for the best moments in life to come to us. We can arrange for their occurrence and increase their frequency. This involves calculated risk. It begins with the identification of some task-related goal that we care about. The task must be challenging; it must tax our physical or mental resources (or both). But achieving our goal must be within reach. Ideally, this goal will be attainable along a growth curve, with stages of challenge representing significant accomplishments toward the realization of the ultimate objective.

I’ve experienced this with downhill skiing, sea kayaking, sailing, and motorcycling. These are physical activities that involve a definite mental component. Foreign travel produces a similar effect for me as I navigate the challenges of unfamiliar languages, foreign currency, and methods of transportation. Public speaking is another arena for the experience of flow, since each engagement is unique, and each form of presentation presents special challenges. For example, public debate on the question of God’s existence is different that a radio interview about the Academy Awards.

Csikszentmihaly is especially good on how to create flow in the ordinary activities of work and family life. At one point he writes,

People are the most flexible, the most changeable aspect of the environment we have to deal with. The same person can make the morning wonderful and the evening miserable. (pp. 166-67)

The principles developed in this book also apply to our experiences of adversity. Even tragic events can be seen as positive. Csikszentmihaly distinguishes between positive and negative responses to stress, between “transformational coping” and “regressive coping,” and develops strategies for “cheating chaos” through transformational coping. Would you like to know how to “transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge”? See Chapter 9 of Flow.

In his more recent book, Csikszentmihaly has focused on the relationship between flow and creativity.

If you’ve read Csikszentmihaly, share what you think of his work. Do you have any favorite passages? When have you experienced “flow”? Have you discovered ways to experience adversity as meaningful opportunity?

Ferriss, Frauenfelder and Trapani: Three Books for the Productivity Minded


Three books crossed my desk about the same time, Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek, Mark Frauenfelder’s Rule the Web, and Gina Trapani’s Upgrade Your Life. They have certain aims and features in common, so I’ll describe them in one long Reading Jag post.

***

Ferriss counsels his readers to expand their horizons and pursue their dreams, even at considerable risk. He asks a straightforward question: Why put off what you’ve been working for all your life? There are people who work 60+ hours per week, and don’t do much else. Chances are they aren’t happy campers, even if they think they are. Some have been logging dozens of weekly hours for decades. They surely do need to stop the carousel and ask themselves why they got on in the first place. They should also stick around an honest answer.

As it happens, Timothy Ferriss is a pretty young guy. To all appearances, he is constitutionally incapable of working a forty-hour week. There’s just too much fun to be had, and much of it requires happy-go-lucky world-travel. Since having fun is his primary aim in life, and work fits uneasily in that scenario, he’s devised a strategy for limiting his work commitments to four hours a week. And he’s managed to make a fortune doing so. This book explains how. It’s also an advertisement for his consulting services for those who wish to follow the plan and achieve the same dream.

Ferriss offers a lot of practical advice about how to manage time, conduct business more efficiently, and join ranks with “the new rich.” And plenty of it is good advice. But layered throughout his enthusiastic campaign to streamline is a work ethic that deserves closer examination than many readers will give. He makes certain assumptions and claims about the point of human existence and the value of work that will be absorbed without awareness by the narcissistic rabble that makes up so much of the American population today.

Living a morally exemplary life has more to do with being than doing. For any significant action or form of life it is appropriate to ask, What sort of person would make that choice? In this case, what sort of person would wish to tidy things up on the scale and in the manner commended by Ferriss? What would it mean for society if everyone behaved in the way that is celebrated here? What kinds of relationships and commitments would be possible living this way? And what would replace the machinery of work as an incentive to personal discipline?

I don’t mean to break the spokes on Ferriss’s wheel. The irony is that “leisure is the basis of culture,” as Joseph Pieper argued. If the community of the new rich use their greater leisure for at least a modicum of contemplation and pursuit of the highest ideals, it will be a good thing for them and others. I like the way Ferriss writes and I share his sense of adventure. I welcome many of his specific suggestions for improving productivity and making room for other important activities beyond work. I recommend the book, but with caution. And I have to say, his website is way cool.

***

The other two books are more about the pragmatics of productivity, and both focus heavily on the use of technology in ordering our lives. Gina Trapani has a name for the person who assimilates efficiency habits in the use of technology—computer technology, mostly. The name is “lifehacker.” The subtitle for Upgrade Your Life is The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better. I don’t know what there is about “better” that isn’t covered by “smarter” and “faster,” or why “better” doesn’t cover the bases all by itself. Titles like these abound, and they’re much more effective from a marketing standpoint when they aren’t subjected to much analysis. But hey, who’s analyzing?

The book, in the edition I have, includes no less than 115 “hacks,” laid out in eleven chapters and 450 pages, if you count the index. It’s definitely “user-friendly,” as any book with its objectives would have to be. Here’s a chapter-by-chapter rundown.

Chapter 1 suggests ten hacks for controlling email. Hack 1, like all the hacks in the book, is stated as a directive and uses a verb in the active voice—”Empty Your Inbox (and Keep It Empty).” If you aren’t already convinced of the value of this advice, Trapani makes a compelling case. And the suggestions for making this work are useful. Hacks 2, 3, and 4 didn’t do much for me. Number 5 is interesting: “Use Disposable Email Addresses.” This can certainly come in handy when you don’t want to risk a barrage of junk mail after divulging your email address online as a condition for some promised benefit. Trapani tells you how to circumvent that dread possibility.

Hack 6 is useful, number 7 not so much (speaking personally, of course). I especially liked learning about hacks 8 and 9, for consolidating email addresses and scripting repetitive email responses, respectively.

The main problem I have with Hack 8 is that I can’t use gmail in tandem with my business email account in the way that’s required. That’s a limitation of FirstClass mail, one of many that have caused me a degree of frustration. I can forward mail from FirstClass to gmail, of course. But if I reply from gmail, recipients get my messages marked with my gmail address rather than my FirstClass address. That’s generally not desirable.

It’s remarkable how often I receive unsolicited questions about some presumed area of expertise, and how often the same questions recur. A solution, helpful to both parties, is to script replies to the commonest inquiries. Scripting repetitive messages and replies doesn’t take much specialized knowledge. But a book of this kind, that is virtually (no pun intended) encyclopedic, has to include a few pages on the wherefore and the how-to.

Hack 10 is OK, but not brilliant in my work environment. (Trapani understands that some hacks will work better for some people than for others.)

Hacks 11 to 21, collected in Chapter 2, are about organizing your data—all that stuff that comes your way and has to be archived in some fashion, ready for future reference. There are hacks for

  • structuring your documents folder (the main thing is to come up with some way to keep unrelated stuff off your desktop and in places where it can be found fairly easily),
  • using searches and various tools to retrieve files,
  • keeping track of the bulging tribe of passwords needed for web logins and such,
  • tagging bookmarks (using del.icio.us, for example; see Brett O’Connor’s book del.icio.us Mashups),
  • organizing digital photos (Trapani likes Picasa; but Leo Laporte, The Tech Guy,on AM radio, recommends an online service called carbonite.com),
  • designing a personal planner, and
  • maintaining paper files.

Chapter 3 is kind of a breakdown in greater detail of the final hack in chapter 2. That hack, number 21, is about designing your own planner. Chapter 3 is titled “Trick Yourself Into Getting Done.” This is a series of eight hacks (22-29) for managing your projects, calendar, and time. The advice is sound. While not entirely original, it’s convenient to have it packaged here with other lifehacking suggestions.

Chapter 4 continues in the same vein, but with greater focus on specific types of activities and responsibilities, using the computer for it all. Here are six hacks for doing more things with your photo library (using Flickr), taking notes, and organizing tasks. Hack 31 explains how to build your own personal wikipedia. It sounds cool. But the cool factor is erased for me because it only works on the Windows platform. I know, I can run Windows on my Mac. But I don’t want to run Windows, which is one reason why I have a Mac.

The last hack of the chapter, number 35, very sensibly suggests using plain-text files for tracking projects and tasks. This suggestion is every bit as useful to GTDers—the cult followers of David Allen’s somewhat baroque strategy for Getting Things Done. I actually like David Allen’s general approach, have recommended his book to my students, and have gifted the book to my research assistants. I imagine GTD appeals most to those of us with obsessive-compulsive personality disorders (sorry, David). But a disorder is a disorder, and you’ve got to work with it. The thing is, a GTD addict may be completely nonplussed about managing life with something as prosaic as plain text, when there are so many exotic software programs specifically designed to play well with GTD guidelines.

(I know something about this, having spent time in that sandbox myself. And I’ve finally settled on a software program that does it all and without an inordinate number of bells and whistles. It’s called Things. I reckon it has all the virtues trumpeted by Gina Trapani on behalf of plain text, but with greater visual appeal and a minimum of setup. Granted, Things doesn’t work with Windows, at least not yet. Which is yet another reason to go with the Mac platform!)

Hacks 36-44 are set forth in Chapter 5. The chapter title, “Firewall Your Attention,” is not especially self-explanatory. But the point is to have strategies for staying focused on what matters, to avoid web and email distractions, and to set up a work environment conducive to productivity.

Chapter 6 is all about streamlining. There are thirteen hacks here, outlining tricks for speeding up web searches and web page displays, using keyboard shortcuts, text-messaging, and managing money using your cell phone (!). I can’t see myself ever using my camera phone to scan text to PDF (hack 57). But I do use Google Calendar and the instructions about this in hack 56 are very helpful.

One of the main advantages of technological excess should be greater potential for automation, especially for repetitive tasks. That’s the focus of the ten hacks in Chapter 7. Trapani explains, step by step, ways to automate file backups, disc cleanups, application launches, Google searches, and media downloads. Backups are a necessity, and the simpler the procedure the better. (Did I mention carbonite.com?) I guess auto-launches have their place, but I haven’t felt much need for them myself. As for automating searches and downloads, this could be a potential nightmare. You can set your computer to download more stuff than you can possibly wade through during your more leisurely moments. And even if you are willing to burrow into so many archives, you’ll still have to remember to do it periodically and muster the inner strength to resist the temptation to loiter needlessly among all the stimulating stuff that’s been collected while you were sleeping. (That inflated sentence actually illustrates the problem I’m getting at.)

Chapter 8 is all about how to go portable with your tech-saturated life. Twelve unique hacks will have you on your way in no time. First you need a web-based office suite. (Not for me, thank you.) Then you want some device or devices for portable storage, like MojoPac or flash drives. (This makes sense.) You may want to use text messaging to run web apps. Since you always have your cell phone with you, all you need to know is how. Hack 73 explains how to create a virtual private network (VPN). I didn’t know what this was until I came to that portion of the book, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want one. Generally, I prefer a network that is so private no one else but me can get in. I have a home network that links me to the women in my life, and, so far, that’s been enough for me.

Speaking of home computer operation, there are nifty hacks for running a home web server (hack 74), implementing remote controls (hack 75), and assigning a web addresses to your home computer (huh?) (hack 76). Hack 77 is a potpourri of simple ways to get the most out of your computer battery, keyboard, screen, and so forth. Gmail can be used as an internet hard drive (hack 80), your cell phone can multi-task as a modem (hack 79), and your iPod can replace your hard drive (hack 78)—well, not replace it, exactly.

Greater web mastery is only sixteen hacks away—Chapter 9. Google like a pro. Use RSS. Multiply search engines. Exploit the URL bar (I knew there was a name for that thing). Get Firefox working for you. Find out what “reusable media are,” then use them and re-use them. Plot data in interesting ways on various maps. Get used to tabbed browsing. Here’s a good one: “Access unavailable web sites via Goggle” (hack 91). You would think that if a website is unavailable, you wouldn’t be able to access it. What does “unavailable” mean, after all? But you have yet to learn the miraculous powers of Google. And the method is all condensed on one page.

Maintain your elaborately constructed browser habitat from one computer to another (hack 92). It takes two pages to learn this one. Lift the hood on a website you’re not sure you can trust (hack 93). Don’t let Google ruin your reputation; expunge their invasion of your privacy (hack 94). Use Google Notebook for web research (hack 95). (This seems to me to be rather like the Firefox extension called Zotero. But I haven’t done a close comparison.) Cover your tracks after browsing the web (hack 96).

Has your computer ever let you down? Get the upper hand using resources on your computer. Chapter 10 takes you through the steps with twelve specialty hacks. These deal with viruses and infections, data-space hogs, firewalls, and lost files. I couldn’t help noticing that many of these hacks are designed for PCs only. Hmm, wonder what that means?

Chapter 11 concludes the book with eight hacks needed to get multiple computers to synchonize and play nice with each other, sharing data and peripherals (like the same printer, for example)

I wouldn’t have had the patience to write a book like Trapani’s. I’d have to mess with Windows in order to offer the best advice to Windows users, and I’d have to write out in excruciating detail various hacks that are mostly a matter of common sense. And I’m beginning to wonder if Upgrade Your Life is the proper title for a book in this genre. Gina Trapani’s motto says it better, “Don’t live to geek; geek to live!”

The book includes an index. Another nice feature is the set of references that comes at the end of each chapter. Most of these references are web addresses for further material on topics covered in the relevant chapter. Trapani has done her homework. And she keeps up with this dynamic field of tech-savviness at her engaging website (to which I have subscribed using RSS).

***

I suggested earlier that Trapani and Frauenfelder have similar goals. Given the encyclopedic nature of Trapani’s book, what can we expect from Frauenfelder that we don’t find in Trapani? Answer: more focus—as indicated by the full title of his book, Rule the Web: How to Do Anything and Everything on the Internet—Better, Faster, Easier. You see, Frauenfelder limits himself to tricks of the internet trade.

But he doesn’t shortchange the reader, since his book comes to 402 pages, including the index. The sheer heft of this reference work (available in inexpensive paperback) convinces us that pretty much anything and everything you can do on the internet is covered in its pages. Testing the claim that you’ll be able to do it all “better, faster, easier” is another matter. I’m in no position to challenge. But I wouldn’t want to; the tactics I find most useful enhance my performance adequately.

Coincidentally, Rule the Web also has eleven chapters. (Or is there some numerological significance in the realm of techno-cultural enhancements?)

  1. Creating and Sharing
  2. Searching and Browsing
  3. Shopping and Selling
  4. Health, Exercise, and Sports
  5. Media and Entertainment
  6. Travel and Sightseeing
  7. Work, Organization, and Productivity
  8. Communication
  9. Toolbox
  10. Protecting and Maintaining
  11. Tips from My Favorite Bloggers

Rule the Web follows a familiar structure. But instead of labeling each hack-like suggestion as a kind of directive, Frauenfelder opts for the interrogative. He formulates a question you might have and then he answers.

Things start off pretty simply:

  • How do I set up my own web site?
  • Is it “website,” one word, or “web site,” two words? (Oops, sorry. That’s not one of the questions.)
  • What’s a domain name?
  • How many people visit my web site?

Notice the conversational tone. Very user-friendly.

  • What are blogs and why should I read them?
  • What is RSS and how do I use it? (This overlaps with Trapani.)
  • How can I blog using my mobile phone? (Finally we come to a question I’ve been aching to ask. Just kidding.)

There is some seriously good advice here for sprucing up your blog to make it more popular. The whole section on podcasting is a good introduction to the subject. Chapter 1 includes advice about using Wikipedia effectively, stowing photos, and sharing files.

Chapter 2 begins with a nice tutorial on the use of Google’s search tools. Page 108 lists some helpful keyboard shortcuts for the Firefox browser. The rest of the chapter offers pretty elementary instruction on browser technique.

Chapter 3 is a hodgepodge of suggestions for buying and selling goods using the internet. The pages about navigating eBay could save users some agony . . . and maybe even a little money. Comparison shopping is treated here, and there’s advice for buying certain kinds of products on the web (like planes, trains, and automobiles—well, automobiles, anyway). I’ve used the web to find user manuals for all sorts of aged products around our house. I thought it was a sign of Frauenfelder’s sensitivity to the things the web can do for people that he included a paragraph about this.

Chapter 4 sounds like it would be one of the longer chapters. It comes to only eight pages. But this is by no means a measure of the wealth of health and exercise information available online. My questions in this category are almost completely different than the ones raised and answered in this book.

Chapter 5 offers a much more extensive survey of internet resources in the media and entertainment category—63 pages, in fact. This is probably a reflection of the proportional use that is made of the web by our generation. (Of course, no other generation has ever used the web.)

Chapter 6 explains the relatively simple procedures for planning vacations, booking airline seats, reserving hotel rooms, and finding restaurants online. These are common uses of the internet, and the treatment could stand a little more in the way of detail for those who already have some elementary sense about web browsing.

Chapter 7 has two categories: personal productivity, and money and financial management. Again, the treatment is sparing, but internet novices are at least alerted to a sample of the range of things they can do online.

Mark Frauenfelder

Chapter 8 is slightly bulkier than chapter 5. And well it should be, since it deals with so many communication options and issues: wi-fi, cell phones, integrating cell phone use with the internet, Skype, email, and protection from spam. Since I travel a lot, I was interested in the brief section about finding free wi-fi service in public places. This led me to buy the Canary Wireless Hotspotter. I don’t use it often, but it does come in handy. I can test a neighborhood for wi-fi signals and see whether they’re free or not, without booting up my laptop. Thank you, Mark, for that tip!

Chapter 9 recommends ways to keep your computer humming efficiently. It also has a section on music downloads and applications that you might expect to find in chapter 5. One page tells you how to eliminate scratches from the display window on your iPod. Several questions deal with iTunes issues, but not the one that’s had me befuddled for several months, namely, Why can’t I download the tunes I’ve paid for at the iTunes Music Store! The best entry in this chapter explains how to use iTunes as an alarm clock. I’ve genuinely appreciated and enthusiastically followed the simple guidelines. Again, thanks, Mark! Next I’ll be trying his technique for capturing a still image from a DVD movie that’s playing on my laptop.

Chapter 10 is about maintenance issues, like keeping your cookies down while navigating all those twists and turns in your browsing (not exactly the way Frauenfelder puts it). Encryption, spyware, phishing, pharming, evil twins, and spam are given space here.

Chapter 11 is potpourri time. Twenty-two different bloggers contribute their ideas for superior web techniques. A couple of these appealed to me: Jeff Diehl’s tip on transcribing podcasts and Hana Levin’s practice using random Google searches to come up with blogging links. I’ll experiment with Cyrus Farivar’s ideas for using Greasemonkey scripts. Other than that, the tips section is pretty short on tips and long on plugging favorite websites.

The index makes it a little easier to find your way around this book. The Table of Contents, with its single-level subheaders, is crucial for quick navigation. Otherwise, thumbing through the pages and browsing is your best bet for finding something that will meet your needs or aspirations. I like the book’s concept. The price tag is covered by even the few things that were most useful to me. But the bulk of it is less than what I needed. And that really counts when it comes to space on my bookshelf. I estimate that there are maybe two or three dozen pages that really helped me out. And that’s how it is with books of this kind. They aim at such a broad audience that, for each particular reader who has some facility with the internet, there will probably only be a few entries that are truly educational. So the ideal audience for this book is the shrinking population of web users for whom the internet remains a total mystery.

Mark Frauenfelder blogs at boingboing.

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The internet is truly an amazing phenomenon. My brother-in-law and his family are vacationing in the East right now. His wife phoned my wife to ask for a restaurant recommendation in the vicinity of Times Square (like we go there all the time). Fact is, Dianne did recall a restaurant we all enjoyed when we were there as a family in 2001. She just couldn’t remember the name. Our daughters knew exactly what she was referring to, but couldn’t bring up the name, either. Me? I didn’t even remember being there! But after listening to their nostalgic recollections for a few minutes, I knew exactly what to do. I went to the family computer and Googled the following string of terms: “space theme burgers restaurant new york city.” And there it was—Mars 2112, Restaurant and Bar. It will take more effort than that to call the in-laws back with the information.

Mars 2112, Restaurant and Bar

If You Can’t Hack It, Try This . . .


How are you hacking it? Is some aspect of life too much for you?

A new section of my blog will be devoted to life-hacking skills. It’s called “If You Can’t Hack It, Try This.” I made the first entry yesterday, on why it’s a good idea to leave your email alone first thing in the morning. More posts are on their way. There will be items on information management (now called “information farming” by some), efficient use of the internet for personal productivity, planning and completing projects, productivity tools, recommended websites, book reviews, writing strategies, study tips, and more.

As a university teacher, author, and speaker, my challenges may be different than yours. Let me know through the comments link below if there are topics you’d like to see considered. And if you have suggestions for things to try in some area where it’s hard to hack it, why not post them using the comments link?

Never Check Your Email First Thing in the Morning (Regardless of Your Time Zone)


This advice comes from Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. The bit about the time zone is my little contribution.

This is great advice, but Ferriss doesn’t explain why. You can figure it out in context, but you might not have the book. And some things aren’t there. So here’s my explanation.

1. For many of us, email is a black hole. Once you get in, it’s hard to get out. We know this happens. So we might be starting our day with email just to avoid the really important and productive stuff. Don’t let this happen.

2. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you’re liable to spend more time messaging than you would later in the day, since it may feel like you have more time for email before the day really gets cranking.

3. The impulse to check email first thing every morning is a good indicator of an unhealthy addiction. If you feel like you simply must check your mail, then you have less discipline in your life than you need if you want to be productive.

4. Checking your email early clutters your mind with other people’s business when you want to devote your best hours to your own business. Before you open your mail, you don’t know what’s in there waiting for you. Why take the chance that it will bear tidings of new responsibilities?

5. By deliberately waiting to check your email, you train yourself to estimate more accurately the importance and urgency of email in your life. The bane of email is that it is too convenient and it creates an artificial sense of urgency. Postponing your email fix helps you experience the freedom from email that comes when you realize that very little of it is urgent. If you think it’s urgent, you may feel its bidding during all hours of the day, regardless of how often you check. And checking first thing in the morning feeds that sense of urgency.

6. Checking email first thing may encourage poor email management. Suppose you adopt the policy that you will never leave a message you’ve read in your inbox. Great idea. But to follow through on that policy, you have to have a message management system. The simplest of systems has three bins or folders, one for the archives, one for follow-up tasks, and one for holding items while you wait on someone else to complete a task. The rest can be deleted. So every message that’s opened is immediately handled in one of five ways: (1) it’s trashed, (2) it’s answered, (3) it’s archived, (4) it’s tucked into a follow-up folder, or (5) it’s moved to a folder awaiting someone else’s action. The FOLLOW-UP and WAIT bins will have to be monitored. So you’ll probably want to keep track of them in your task management system. Staying organized this way takes a little extra effort. If you don’t want to tie up your morning with these kinds of activities, and you just want to open your mail to see what’s in there, you will end up doing one of two things, practicing your management protocol when you should be doing something more productive, or leaving read messages in the inbox to be tended to later.

7. It may turn out that simply waiting a few hours to check mail allows just enough time for many messages to become stale. If a message has gone stale, because the urgency of the moment when it was sent has evaporated, then you have one less message to deal with.

And now a word about time zones. I live in California, where it’s three hours later than in the east. So by the time my day starts, other people in my communication loop have already had three hours to post messages. So I might think I owe it to them to jump into my mailbox right away to see if that’s the case. But I owe it to myself not to do this.

I’d like to know about your email headaches, and strategies for getting relief. So please post your comments. Just don’t expect me to reply first thing in the morning.

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