Recently, Joe Kissell at TidBITS has written an excellent article about a subject I’ve been meaning to address for a while: email management and the increasingly popular idea that it’s time to ‘fix’ email. Tech writers and bloggers all have, more or less vocally, moaned about how ‘broken’ email is, how frustrating and time-consuming is the management of their inboxes, apparently as flooded by email messages as celebrities are flooded with fan (or hate) mail.
In his article, aptly titled It’s Not Email That’s Broken, It’s You, Kissell begins by writing:
I’m tired of reading about how email is fundamentally flawed and about all the clever new ways to “fix” or “reinvent” it. Email isn’t broken! Email is great. I love email; it’s my favorite way to communicate. Some email apps, servers, and protocols are better than others, but honestly, it would be OK with me if email stayed as is forever. If your relationship with email is unsatisfactory, email isn’t the problem. It’s you.
And I agree: email is my favourite way to communicate, as I wrote in my piece called Email more than a year ago. Kissell nails it completely for me when he writes:
I could give lots more examples, but it’s clear that a great many people are completely overwhelmed by email. That’s a problem, for sure, and it needs to be solved. What bothers me is when people blame the medium. […] Your email problems aren’t the fault of email as a communications system, and they’re probably not even the fault of the tools you’re using. It’s easy to pick on email because it won’t fight back. But the real problem for most people who feel email is out of control is that they haven’t taken responsibility for figuring out why the problem exists for them and how to change their habits to address it.
My very slight divergence with Kissell’s stance — and the main reason I’m adding my article to the debate — happens at this point:
I wouldn’t presume to say, “Why don’t you just grow up and deal with your problem?” as though you’re merely being too lazy to implement some obvious and foolproof fix.
I will venture to make that presumption and say this: if you have problems with email, stop whining and deal with it, possibly with methods that don’t make you a rude moron in the eyes of your correspondents. As I tweeted back in December, all these prominent tech bloggers who keep saying they can’t deal with all the email messages they receive are refusing to accept that it’s part of the game. Yes, since they sometimes stir up some controversial debate, it’s obvious that part of the feedback they receive via email is going to be hate-mail or generally harsh and impolite messages which are certainly not meant to invite a constructive and in-depth exchange. And I fully understand how this kind of spammy emails keep adding to the pile and make things less than ideal to manage.
But ignoring or deleting messages indiscriminately, in my opinion, is not a solution. And it annoys me how some people flippantly claim to be managing their email this way, because it comes across as rude and thoughtless behaviour. Among those messages they chose to ignore or delete there are polite requests and nice communications. I know this from experience, both as someone who wrote such polite requests and nice, disinterested messages (which remained largely unanswered, of course), and as someone who has been on the receiving end of such kind of emails.
I can’t excuse this rude behaviour because, as I said, handling a generous amount of email feedback is part of the game, where by ‘game’ I mean being a well-known figure in the world of technology commentary. “I want to write whatever the hell I want, I don’t support comments in my blog, and receiving all this feedback via email is incredibly annoying and exhausting, so leave me alone” — is the childish attitude of people still trapped in their adolescence. After all, they put themselves in that position. You don’t want to deal with this kind of feedback? Don’t put contact information on your website. Or write some guidelines in order to place a filter as early as possible in the communication chain: this way, people inclined to write you will know beforehand what’s going to happen and may even decide not to write you. It’s a time-saver for both parties, and you don’t come across as rude as you would by mass ignoring/deleting the emails you receive, whatever their nature. Not to mention that some of this high-profile tech writers live of their blogs/products: the least they could do is deal with people who helped make them successful.
A true Inbox Zero stage has little to do with the number zero
Mat Honan said it well:
Inbox zero is just a construct. It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t have a clean inbox — what matters is that you act on your incoming mail as necessary. Inbox zero is simply an organizational technique to help you accomplish the things you really need to. It is not the end goal; it’s simply a process. Too many people conflate the process of inbox zero with the goal of being more productive.
And too many people take the number zero literally and find themselves engulfed in a state of ‘email angst’ of their own creation. Oh god, oh god, the ‘red badge of discourage[ment]’ alerting of those 58 unread messages! Delete this, mark that as read, dismiss, dismiss… until zero is reached. Isn’t this just silly? From experience, what I can say on the matter is that by always ignoring the Inbox Zero kind of email management, I often find myself at the end of the day (or of the weekend) with an Inbox that truly has zero unread messages. To reach that point is all a matter of triage, triage, triage.
I can’t suggest a method or process that’s valid for everyone: I’ve found out that for me the worst approach is the ‘deal with this later’. The earliest I act when I receive new messages, the better the overall management. Where ‘to act’ most commonly means ‘to assess’, not necessarily ‘to reply’. Instead of having too many email folders, I prefer to have a dozen different email accounts. I use a certain account to sign up for newsletters, another for social networks and related services, another for joining the few mailing lists I follow, etcetera. All the low-traffic accounts and the accounts that are set to receive ‘impersonal email’ (again, newsletters, promotions, shopping suggestions, mailing lists…) are handled by a separate email client (Mailsmith) and I check them every 3–4 days. 99.99% of the spam I receive is efficiently handled by Gmail itself and by the ever-wonderful SpamSieve.
The few accounts set to receive important work-related email, feedback related to what I write here, important personal email, and the like, are handled by Mail.app — my primary email client — and I monitor them much more frequently than the others. (Only these accounts are configured in my iPhone and iPad.) This two-tier approach may seem chaotic and complicated, but it’s rather simple once the wheels start moving. In the end it’s just a matter of setting up an effective filtering system. I devised this approach over a weekend years ago, and it hasn’t changed much since. Sometimes I don’t reply to messages and requests right away, but I eventually get back to people. And if I ignore certain messages, chances are the sender hasn’t followed my guidelines.
What’s important, however, is that I devised this email management system because I care. I care about email as a means of communication. I care about helping people if they write me with a (reasonable) request, I care about feedback and I’m open to suggestions or tips to expand my knowledge or point of view on a variety of subjects. Many times my correspondents have shared useful advice or asked to know more about certain topics, and sometimes that has led to a constructive correspondence which I like to think enriched both parties. Email is not broken, per se — attitudes are.