Welles: Bit literacy is the new cure-all

The e-mail messages in your inbox are as pesky as gnats in the summer. It seems like no matter how many you delete, more show up the next day or hour. And when you return from vacation, you might as well toss your computer out the window because messages will be clogging it and suffocating you.

There have been many books, blogs (including my own) and commentary about how to deal with
e-mail messages — both wanted and unwanted. So why bother reading about another one? Just like anything you want to change, you need to hear about it several times before you can absorb it, learn it or get motivated to do something about it.

“Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload,” published last year, offers ideas for clearing your inbox. Author Mark Hurst is an entrepreneur with multiple degrees in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s clear that he has thought much about the topic.

Bits — or binary digits — are everything you see and read on a computer in tiny electrical impulses: e-mail messages, Web pages, graphics and documents. Bits are everywhere and increase constantly. Hurst uses the term bit literacy to describe the skills necessary to live and work with bits “in a healthy and productive way.” 

The idea behind bit literacy is to free users so they can engage as many bits as they want and never be overloaded. The key is to let the bits go — delete, defer or filter — so they don’t pile up. “Emptiness is at the heart of bit literacy,” Hurst said.

Only when we let the bits go can we begin to think clearly and work effectively. But how do you do it? If the goal is to empty your e-mail inbox or organize photos and documents, you must first learn to use the technology.

According to Hurst, the most common reason for overloaded e-mail inboxes is that people are using them for something other than their main purpose. The inbox becomes their to-do list. Or the inbox becomes a file system, a calendar or an address book.

The alternative is to use the right tool for each kind of message. Create a to-do list, set up a calendar to store appointments and so forth.

Hurst said no message should stay in the inbox no matter how important it is, and he suggests emptying the inbox a few times a day by following three simple steps:

1. Read all personal e-mails, then delete them.

2. Delete all spam.

3. Read information-only and action items quickly then delete or file them.

Other chapters discuss effective e-mail structure (clear subjects, short messages), file formats and ways to manage photos. He also has a free Good Experience newsletter and blog with tips at goodexperience.com.

Welles(jwelles@1105govinfo.com) is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work/life topics for Federal Computer Week.

About the Author

Judith Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md.

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