Rodrigo Martell

Why I wish email would die

Email still has a place in our lives, but it is often abused and overused. At work, anyway. We can do better if we tried.

"6,568 Archived emails"

I’m hardly stating anything novel when I say email sucks. There are countless posts on the subject. I will be changing jobs shortly and cleaning up my inbox caused me to reflect on the volume of emails that passed through my eyes.

The screenshot above shows my AirMail client’s archive folder for the last continuous chunk of time I spent at my old work, ~3 years. 6,568 emails may not seem like much, but most of these are “conversations” that I either took part in or was just included in via the old Fwd, CC, or BCC (that one makes you feel special ;=D ) field. I don’t have stats on this but I’d guess each conversation has at least 3 emails: the initial email, the response, and an acknowledgement of the response. That would put the email count at almost 20,000. Yikes!

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that volume of communication, I don’t think. After all the majority is information I would have liked to know. My beef with it starts with the manner in which these emails are stored and later searched on and what people choose to communicate with them.

"Emails take up space"

There are stacks of emails I simply don’t care about and they mostly originate and end within my organisation. Things like “My kids are finishing school early so I will be working from home.” or “I saw a cool article on deck chairs while browsing around at lunch. Here it is in case anyone finds it interesting.”. This may sound awful but that kind of email is an indiscriminate broadcast to the entire office when only a handful of people may be genuinely interested. It also opens up the possibility of “roping” someone into something they have no option of opting out of. That may be a good or a bad thing depending on the context but it often angers people rather than please them.

Of course, mixed in with these emails are the ones you are actually interested in. This is not a new problem and I’m aware of folders and rules. That still requires an extra step that is often not perfect in my experience.

In my old work we worked on projects that each had a code in an internal time-keeping system. For example PROJ01. A number of people, say 3, would be assigned to the project and the emails would start to flow. I would try my hardest to start all my emails with the project code hoping others would do the same so that my rules would pick them up and chuck them into the correct folder. I would, of course, forget every so often and so would my team mates so I would have to manually move these after reading or actioning them. In the heat of battle though I would simply leave them in the unsorted mixed bag that was my inbox. To make matters worse, I would receive unrelated emails from the same people in my team that I’d have to sort into non-project categories. A poorly sorted inbox leads to a messy search process later and that’s exactly what I had. I’d often give up searches as they’d become too complicated.

Sorting your emails is certainly possible, but when you do it regularly it gets very old and 15 seconds here and there adds up to a fair bit, which brings me to my next beef: it breaks my train of thought man! This is not unique to email. We have a squillion apps and widgets clamouring over each other to let you know that right at this very second, some event took place! Some of these notifications are important like a meeting reminder, but some could certainly wait their turn like a tweet or… an email!

I write code and when I’m onto a task I really get into it. If I’m interrupted I reckon it takes me on average about 5 minutes to get back into the groove and concentrate. Having emails constantly pop up derail my thought process and it bugs me to death. For this reason I took to configuring AirMail to only check emails every 30 minutes. I would have loved to set it to check emails once a day, perhaps at the start of the day. The problem is however, that the other party expects, at least internally, that you’ll be monitoring your emails and get them instantly. Sometimes I’d choose to ignore an email and keep working and shortly after I’d get a call starting with something like “I just sent you an email about X. Can we talk about it now?”. I would sometimes say, no, but most of the time I’d have to say yes and suspend whatever it is that I was doing. The call would make the email moot anyway.

At this point one could summarise why I wish email would die as follows:

  • It makes unsolicited/undesirable communication too easy.
  • It is difficult to sort (efficiently).
  • It interrupts my workflow.

I think there still is room for email, however. If I think back on instances when I’ve made legitimate productive email contact with people I’d say it’s been by a large margin with external parties to my organisation. I’d get a client sending me materials, or our external IT support consultants getting in touch, or license renewal reminders etc. These are all instances of direct, targeted extra-organisational contact, which email caters well for. With this in mind and with observations on how email has been used where I’ve worked, I perhaps retract my somewhat sensationalist post title in favour of the following list of conditions for when not to use email:

  • When you want to communicate internally; and
  • you want to keep separate streams of unrelated communications; and
  • you want to be able to opt into communications; or
  • you want to unicast or multicast, or even broadcast (be selective on what to broadcast).

What could we use instead to satisfy these conditions I just pulled out of my sleeve? I had a cursory look at and play with Slack and HipChat, as well as Yammer although not too seriously. I was pretty taken by Slack I have to say. Whatever the relative advantages of these tools are I suppose are irrelevant for my argument. I take the fact that these exist and have traction as validation that my problem is not unique and there are solutions out there for it. The task then becomes one of changing people’s emailing habits. This is despite the fact that email is ubiquitous and I’d argue has a strong network effect that is hard to break.

Moving away from email is easy to do when you have the power to make the decision, at least internally. When you don’t it becomes a bit more difficult as people are likely resistant to change. I find this to be a particular problem with the “older” crowd dare I say. Perhaps this is a sign of an unmet need: a tool that morphs emails into Slack-style communication? Perhaps extending the idea behind Mailbox or some such? That would make everyone happy. Who knows. I hope so. For now, all I can say is that I feel a bit like this when I get one of “those” internal emails:

"Get that out of my face!" Source:

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