There seems to be a constant flow of “email is/is not broken” articles on HN and various other places. Some of them are very business-oriented, and some of them are scathing rejections (language). But most of them miss the point. Email as a system is not broken, but we, through our email behaviors, are broken.
Nearly all of the articles written recently about fixing email have concentrated on technology and building a better client or implementing the specs more closely or bringing two systems together. These are all great ideas and have a ton of value, but they will not fix the inherent issue that people are experiencing with email, but which most articles fail to articulate: we think email is broken because we are overwhelmed by it and get less real work done because of it.
So instead of asking how we can make email better/faster/cooler, we need to ask ourselves how we can get more work done while still using email. Unfortunately, many experiences have shown over the past decade or so that this problem is not easily solved by new technology, as much as I would love that. It is solved by teaching people better email behaviors. This is certainly a less sexy solution, but guess what? It’s the attainable one. Here are some ideas that I’ve come across from others, and that warrant further investigation. They are all designed to help us get more real work done, which is the real problem with the email timesink.
- Stop checking email continuously and turn off desktop alerts. It is absolutely ridiculous that we allow Outlook to check email every 5 minutes, allow our phone to get push messages, or keep a Gmail tab open all the time. This is absolutely killing us in terms of productivity. In 90% of all cases we don’t need to know immediately that there is a new message. Segmenting our email checking time into 2, 4, or 8 times a day has massive benefits. We greatly reduce task-switching penalties, and removing the alerts so we’re not tempted goes a huge way. See this post for more details.
- Set up a social contract with your colleagues. Several posts have mentioned that email has moved beyond its original purpose, which is true. However, we can still use it. But we cannot continue to use it with everyone having different expectations for its reply rate. We have imbued in email the urgency and rapidity of a telephone call, and that is not good because we cannot handle it in the same way as a telephone call. At work or among your close colleagues, people need to understand and respect how others treat response times. If one person feels that email should be responded to within 2 hours and another within 8-24, there will be obvious pain points. Let those around you know your expectations and respect theirs. Deal with differences as a human being, meaning walking over to or calling someone if you know that their typical response time isn’t fast enough for your issue. This is an area where small new tech could be very beneficial: when composing a message to someone, have an indicator of how soon they are likely to respond, given their own “social contract” and typical patterns.
- Productivity vs Acceleration. This idea comes from David Levy, who notes that in our society we have confused productivity with acceleration, or getting more things done faster. Productivity should actually be more like getting the right things done better. When using email, sending tons of short, not fully formed messages is killing us. We need to take the time to construct useful, productive messages, something most of us are not doing. Levy notes that “‘timeout’ is a punishment because of our focus on productivity in our society.” Ouch.
There’s a whole lot more that could be said on the matter, but I want to help reframe this discussion of “email is broken” by helping everyone realize that it is not the tech that is broken, but the fact that the tech is not helping us get our primary tasks and work done because of our behaviors using it. I am also very excited for the tech that is coming to help fix this, but I also firmly believe that the majority of the solution lies in helping people to better understand how to use the technology in a better way to help us as human beings communicate and get work done. This is certainly a big issue to me, and I hope we make a lot of progress on the matter.