CHICAGO -- Anyone who has e-mail probably experiences
it. You go away for a few days -- in some cases, even a few hours -- and boom!
Your e-mailbox is crammed full.
John Parker's heart sank when he returned from a two-week vacation to find more than 250 e-mails awaiting him.
So he did what many increasingly overwhelmed e-mail users are doing.
"I'm afraid I just basically moved them all into the trash basket," said the Washington bureau chief for the British magazine The Economist.
As far as Parker is concerned, you can opt to spend all day doing e-mail or you can do your work: "But you can't do both."
Technology may make it easier for others to reach us. And it may increase our penchant to communicate. But e-mail inundation is becoming so common that some people are drawing the line.
"The speed of technology is driving me insane!" says Maria Salomao, a public relations executive from San Francisco and one of dozens of people to reply to an online query about the ever-increasing volume of e-mail and voicemail.
"If you're not conscious about it or if your goal is to accomplish your `to do' list, then you are in for a rude awakening," she says. "The list never ends."
Salomao and several others said that in recent months they've begun replying to fewer e-mails and are getting fewer responses to message that they've sent.
In Australia -- a country that has made big efforts to get its citizens connected to the Web -- tax officials have been so swamped by e-mail questions they've had to send auto-responses telling e-mailers they'll have to wait at least two weeks.
Even experts -- including Eric Yaverbaum, author of "I'll Get Back To You" -- are proving hard to reach.
"I've become the guy I used to curse at, and I feel bad," says Yaverbaum, who gets about 100 voice mails and e-mails daily. "But what can you do?"
So who's sending all this stuff anyway?
Some of the e-mail jamming our boxes is, of course, unsolicited junk mail.
Jupiter Communications, a New York-based online research firm which tracks this sort of thing, projects that marketing-related e-mail messages will increase 40-fold between 1999 and 2006. It says the average online user received 1,746 e-mails in 1999 and will receive 2,052 this year.
Then there are people like Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor of new media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who sends so much e-mail -- 250 a day -- that his friends have come up with a name for it: "sree-mail."
Much of the mail he sends requires no reply. But even when he expects a response, he says it's a good idea to be patient.
"When you deal with people who only have dial-up (modem) service and have real lives and don't hang out in front of a computer like I do, you can't expect an immediate reply," Sreenivasan says.
Experts do have a few tips for dealing with an unruly e-mailbox.
"On the receiving side, you have to prioritize," Yaverbaum says.
Sreenivasan, for example, goes through and immediately deletes anything that looks like junk mail -- much like he uses the trash can that sits next to his postal mailbox in his apartment lobby.
"Anybody sees an e-mail from someone they don't know and they erase it automatically now," said Patrick Keane, a Jupiter Communications analyst who tracks online advertising.
Many popular e-mail client programs offer message filtering that users can configure so an urgent request from, say, the boss surges to the top of your e-mail queue.
"On the sending side," suggests Yaverbaum, "you've got to make every e-mail and voicemail count."
In the business world, he says that means keeping it brief -- and asking for a response if you expect one.
And even at home, experts suggest forwarding fewer jokes and attached files to build credibility with those you're sending to.
Even then, some say e-mail may not be the best way to deal with an urgent matter.
"Frankly, I never assume that somebody's going to reply to an e-mail," Parker says. "If I don't get a response, I'll send another e-mail or -- better yet -- pick up the phone."