Wednesday, August 15, 2007

E-mail, Stress, & Filtering

ArsTechnica had an interesting article on 8/14/2007 about E-mail and Stress.

Honestly, it doesn't really surprise me that most people find e-mail stressful. Why? Because they don't use the potential of their e-mail interfaces (e.g. webmail interfaces such as Yahoo's, or even Thunderbird or Outlook) to manage their e-mail. What do they do? They let the e-mail accumulate in their Inbox, and then read it - one by one - and decide what to do with it.

That's probably fine if you only get about 20 e-mails a day. But, most managers and employees at most companies probably get a lot more than that when they're heavily involved in a project.

In the past, I've personally received over 700 e-mails on a daily basis from legitimate sources, and I still get over 100 e-mails a day from legitimate sources. However, I have never found e-mail to be stressful. Why? Because I use a feature of my e-mail tools to manage that e-mail, and organize it so that I can get to exactly what I want when I want it - and I don't have to read it all first to do so. What's this feature calls? Filters.

Filters operate basically the same regardless of the e-mail tool you use in that they allow you to look at various criteria such as message or subject content, who it from, or who it was sent to and perform different actions based on that criteria. Those actions, however, vary from e-mail tool to e-mail tool.

So why am I calling it an e-mail tool? So that I can refer to both web-based e-mail interface - such as Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, Hotmail, and others - as well as non-web programs, such as Outlook, Eudora, and Thunderbird.

Below I'll cover 3 of the e-mail tools I'm familiar with and how filters work in them.

Google's mail service - gmail - has filters that allow you to "star" and apply labels to e-mail. Their labels allow you to search your e-mail so that you can get exactly what you want.

Yahoo! Mail has more traditional filters. You have to go into your Mail Options page and then click on the Filters to add them. At least base paying subscribers get 50 filters that they can apply. For most, this should be enough. Filters with Yahoo allow you to direct e-mail to folders based on the criteria - to/cc, from, subject, message body.

Outlook and Thunderbird are very similar that I am familiar with how they do filters. In Outlook, it's called "Rules", while Thunderbird calls them "Message Filters", but they're essentially the same. Both let you do a lot more than simply apply a label or putting message into a folder - you can forward, reply, or do a number of other things.

Outlook has one advantage over most when couple with Exchange in that it can upload filters to be run on Exchange prior to your access via Outlook. Of course, that really only works when you keep all your e-mail on Exchange. But even when couple with Exchange, you can still do all the rules that you have when you're just using Outlook as it will run some on the server (Exchange) and others on the client (Outlook). However, Outlook also has a disadvantage - it can really only handle about 100 rules.

Any how...if you ever find yourself stressed by e-mail, take a few minutes and set up filters in your e-mail tool so that you can properly manage your e-mail. As you get more rules set up, you'll just feel the stress melt away, and you'll find it is a lot easier to notice and find e-mail from people as well.

Beauty of the ODF File Format

One of the real beauties of the ODF file format is that most anyone can talk to the people that created it and submit ideas to them for helping to improve it. I've submit a couple ideas - I don't know if they'll make it in or not, but because of how ODF is managed - which is done by OASIS, I am able to.

How does one submit? Well, this is by no means the official method - for that talk to OASIS - but from what I can tell, I'd suggest the following, which is what I'm doing (or trying at least):

1) E-mail the OASIS OpenDocument TC's Office-User lists your idea. This is a public, unmoderated list for ideas about ODF and implementing it. So it should be a good place to (a) see if your ideas is or is not already incorporated, and how feasible it is.

2) Once it has been vetted out a bit by #1, then submit a comment to the ODF TC. This should get you on the way to getting it into the standard.

This should hopefully put you on the right path to getting the format adjusted to meet some new feature.

So what did I submit?

Well, the first time I sent something in was to for an idea I had around enabling multiple people to work on the document. The Office-User's said that (a) it was already supported by DocBook (also supported by OASIS), and that it could be done using some of the features in ODF.

And then recently I sent another idea in - per document dictionary lists to augment the spell checker. If accepted, it would allow user's to be able to set word lists specific to a document so that they don't come up as mis-spelled regardless of whether you open your own document, or you pass it on to another user, who uses a different computer or even productivity suite.

Comparatively, Microsoft's OOXML format does not have this ability. In fact, the only people that would really be able to modify OOXML is, well...Microsoft. The ECMA organization pretty much guarantees that in their standard approval of it - it was designed to be compatible with Microsoft Office, not with meeting the needs of a Document Format. ISO approval would mean that an ISO committee would be able to modify it, but then it wouldn't be compatible with Microsoft Office any more. So, essentially Microsoft has locked up the OOXML format.

So, whether I am implementing a new office productivity suite (e.g. OpenOffice, KOffice, etc; or even just one of my own), or simply being a user of any supporting office productivity suite, ODF is the way to go - I can have a say in its features.

For more information, see the OASIS OpenDocument TC's website.