Email is not broken, we are.

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.

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22 thoughts on “Email is not broken, we are.

  1. Chmike

    I fully agree on the points you made. They address our use or expectations of email which needs to be reframed.

    However, my understanding is that “brokeness” of email addresses generally the technical aspects like forged sender, mime, spam, fake error message, disabled returning error message, change of mail content allowed to be changed by relays, no generalized secure email transfert, sender authentication, etc. etc. So email IS “broken”.

    Reply
    1. Post author

      Chmike, I would definitely agree that it is broken from that standpoint. I suppose there are many different “is/isn’t broken” angles we could take.

      Reply
      1. I see your points sir, and I thank you for them.

        However, I have to say I can’t agree with them.

        This is human nature. We, as humans, have always been broken and will always be broken. That said, E-mail is a system that we use. If this system doesn’t work to our benefit and doesn’t address our weaknesses in a way that is beneficial to us – then it IS broken.

        If the tool doesn’t meet the task required for it, should you use it? No. That’s why e-mail needs a replacement.

        That’s my opinion. It probably belongs on my own blog since its so long, but meh.

        Reply
        1. Post author

          So we should just accept any weaknesses we may have an move on? I have a little more faith in our ability as humans I suppose… ;-)

          We made the system, so we can certainly make it better. But we should also address our own basic communication skills as well.

          Reply
  2. I think the same can be said for users that sacrifice productivity to reflexively check Twitter and Facebook. It could be that technology has grown to a point where it has solved certain problems and introduced others like our ability to concentrate. Behaviorally we should be able to do as you suggest, but I contend the average user just doesn’t have that willpower.

    Reply
    1. Post author

      Definitely on target there Lance with the thought that we have introduced new problems for ourself with the awesome technology we have created. I think, however, that if you told the average Joe that it will take him up to 24 minutes to regain full productivity after switching to email and back to his work, or that information overload is a $997 billion problem in the US alone, and we might be able to get Joe to start changing his behaviors.

      Reply
  3. I agree with your points here, Joshua. Tweaking our tools is one part of it. Deciding how we spend our time is another. And setting expectations for others is huge, too.

    For some of us, this is easier said than done, and even if with all the best add-ons, there’s still simply too much. But in that case, it’s still not email that’s the problem, it’s the responsibilities that we’ve taken on ourselves.

    I hope you’ll keep writing on this.

    Reply
    1. Jared, you are too modest. Your tool, AwayFind (www.AwayFind.com) takes Joshua’s points and makes them a reality. In my own over-simplified way of relating what “AF” does for me, it is to email what voicemail is to the telephone…the good parts of it, that is.

      Reply
  4. Well said. One worrisome observation is that this problem itself is not as widely known as it should be, in corporate circles. While you have (politely?) indicated the issue of mismatch of response time expectations, the habits of top management sets the dominant pattern in this. I blame Blackberry for accelerating this phenomenon where people expect email to have been read within seconds of sending. Oh, they do call, but just to ask why you have not replied yet!

    Reply
  5. Part of the problem with the current system is its construct. Every new message is treated with equal urgency by showing up in the most recent position within the inbox and having a space (or row) all to itself. The better way to think about email (and the inbox) is as a series of conversations, some of which are more timely, relevant and higher priority than others.

    The compulsion with email to stop and answer every message would be mitigated by considering the urgency of speaking with any given sender. Your boss should be answered right away. A daily news digest should be accessed later, at the recipient’s discretion. I agree that behavior should change (since so much of the communication is the ability to communicate on demand rather than being forced to consider the relevancy of the message) but at least some part of it is a function of the system and interface designed to manage the messages.

    Reply
    1. Post author

      Great points Avi. There’s some very strong HCI research on this topic, and I hope to write up a post about it in the near future. Thanks!

      Reply
      1. I look forward to that post. Also, if you could pass along some links/references to that research I’d definitely be interested in reading it. Thanks.

        Reply
    2. Most enterprise email systems allow you to manage your email more productively than simply “first in at the top”. For example, Lotus Notes can set up emails as conversations. You can color-code emails by who sent them (for example, I set up mine to show my direct management chain as soft red, a management group I support but don’t report to as soft yellow, etc.). You can also set up filters that automatically move messages to particular folders rather than one big inbox. The trick, as has been noted here, is not technological, though, as many of these tools have been around a while. It’s behavioral: we need to do a better job of teaching each other how to better manage our emails.

      Reply
  6. LukaForum

    I usually leave the phone ringing … but I immediately respond to an email!
    And I don’t think to be broken!
    It’s a matter of priority!
    #1 Children
    #2 Wife
    #3 Gmail
    #4 Boss
    #5 Phone

    Reply
  7. Joshua

    Thanks for this! I credit Steve Lambert’s “self-control” for helping me finish my dissertation. For me the “nuclear option” (with no overrides) is the only thing that works. If only there was an automated version (that didn’t require additional programming) so I could set up two email/internet windows per day. Please let me know if you come across one in your own research.

    Cheers,

    CB

    http://visitsteve.com/made/selfcontrol/

    Reply
    1. Post author

      You and pretty much all of us need the nuclear option, thanks Christopher! I think I’ve seen a few different products that do that, I’ll have to write up a post about them sometime.

      Reply
  8. Nick

    The impact of email on people’s capacity to spend time on a deep, thoughtful attack on a hard problem can be devastating. Real productivity – as opposed to fiddling about with email – really requires solid periods with no email or phone or text or…..

    There are subtle organizational detriments too: over-inclusion. Copying others as a quiet way of diluting responsibility.

    One of the mosty insidious effects is illusion of knowledge. Myriad spur-of-the-moment facts are not the same as real knowledge. I did an experiment (n=1) a while ago. I stopped reading online newspapers, quit NPR, abandoned TV, and had but a couple of sources: The Economist (every 14 days), Forbes (for amusement) and Atlantic Monthly. After a couple of months, I was somehow a bit calmer – yet actually felt like I knew more, not less. I suepct this has a parallel in how we so easily fill our hours and heads with email pointlessness, and end up knowing and accomplishing less….

    Reply
  9. I think your “Set up a social contract with your colleagues” point is the most important. I think the biggest problem with email is the differing treatments of the tool. We all have phones on our desk (or in our pocket) and yet there are many people who think that the fastest way to send an urgent message is to send a electronic letter in a system that we all agree things get lost in. I personally hate using the phone but nothing works better at getting my attention when I’m in my office than my phone ringing. If we were all on the same page about this, then we’d all be using our tools in the best way possible.

    Reply
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