Inbox 10,000: Some Thoughts After A Month Away From Email

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“I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it.”

Peter Gibbons line from Office Space also served as the slug for my post from early July explaining why I was quitting email for the rest of the month. I was pretty sure I knew how I would feel once the month was up. And now that it is, guess what? That line describes exactly how I feel. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever missed anything less than email.

The past few weeks have been fantastic. Both my mornings and evenings have been decidedly less stressful due to this one little life alteration. Actually, all day, every day has just felt better, not having to worry about the constant stress of getting and (more importantly) responding to email.

When I initially said I was quitting for the month, it brought about a few common reactions: 1) “you’re my hero” 2) “you’re an idiot” 3) “it will never work”. A ton of people I’ve run into over the past month have wanted to know how it was going. Here are some thoughts after a month away.

First of all, yes, I cheated.

As I said in my initial post, I had a number of pending things that I had to follow-up on that were already in my inbox. It took me several days to get through these things. And in a few instances, it took nearly all of the entire month because of delays between the back-and-forths. This, and emergencies, meant I was still checking my email from time to time. But I did go out of my way not to respond to anything I didn’t have to respond to.

Still, there were a few times I had to send an email in response. Looking at my inbox, I did this 43 times over the course of the month. If I filter out the messages I previously said I would respond to, it was down to 11 emails I sent. What were these? Almost all of them were work-related. (And a couple others were forwarding upcoming travel arrangements.)

The fact of the matter is that when you need to send a message to a group of individual coworkers fast, there is still no better method than email. One-to-one messages are easy to do over Facebook or Twitter. But multi-person threads where I needed to know certain people would see my message in a timely manner, required email.

Still, sending only 11 or even 43 emails in response to the thousands I received over the past month warms my heart. Exactly how many did I receive? That’s hard to pinpoint for a few reasons. First, Gmail Search seems to fail when I use the date parameter — presumably because the query is too large (I only see “X of 80″ which then turns to “X of thousands”). Second, during the month, we shut off the TechCrunch Tips fire-hose account from forwarding to my email address, so it would be hard to get an exact figure anyway.

But based on a few different tricks and estimations, I would ballpark it at somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 emails received over the past month. Yes, welcome to my regular hell.

So, let’s call it 15,000 emails received, and only 40-some responded to. Do I feel like I missed anything, or couldn’t get the vast majority of my work done as a result? Not at all.

For almost all communication, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Quora, text messaging, group messaging apps, a regular old phone call, and the like (even Instagram!) were a more-than-adequate replacement for email. The tricky part was juggling all those different mediums. But all of them are more efficient time-wise than email, so i didn’t mind doing that at all. That probably doesn’t scale long-term, but it worked fine for the month.

The other day, Robert Scoble laid out why he thought I was wrong to even try to quit email. His argument boils down to the fact that email is very malleable as a universal communications tool and Google has some nice tools for filtering it in just about every way imaginable. Both of those things are true, but reading over his list of why email is so great also gave me chills.

None of the things he loves about email sound great to me at all. They all sound like power features that require a ton of work and effort to use. It reminds me of Scoble’s argument for what Twitter “needs” to add to compete with Google+. Twitter’s simplicity is the very thing I love about it. In some ways, it’s the anti-email. Scoble, as the power user extraordinaire, always seems to want features that will make him feel more in control of a service. But really, those features end up controlling him. And all of us. They steal our more precious commodity: time.

Yes, there are ways to make email work for you, and Gmail offers many of them. And I obviously recognize that email isn’t going away anytime soon — perhaps not even in my lifetime. But wouldn’t it be great if we could just dream it up again?

That’s really my big problem with email. It’s not the medium necessarily, it’s the tools built to harness that medium.

Of those tools, Gmail is the best. But it still sucks. It takes several seconds to send even the simplest message. You have to worry about subject lines. You have to worry about properly formatting your message because that’s the norm. You have to hit several buttons. Then you have to wait for a response.

Others have done a nice job putting a prettier face on email, like Sparrow and Apple’s latest Mail client, but the fundamental downsides of email remain.

The newer systems, like Twitter, Twitter DM, and Facebook Messages, are much faster. That’s true both technically and because of the removal of unnecessary formalities. The latter is why I still have a dream that Google will one day build “Gmail Lite”. For now, services like Shortmail are interesting.

So where do I go from here? I quit email for a month, but I never really got to fully walk away. One day, I hope that’s feasible. But for me, like 99 percent of the rest of you, it’s unfortunately not from a work-perspective.

At the same time, I feel like Frodo Baggins at the end of The Lord of the Rings. *Spoiler* (Can you really have spoilers for a book that’s almost 60 years old?) I’m back home, but I feel like everything has changed. Can I ever really settle in again? I don’t think so.

So my plan for now is to use my inbox as a sort of passive notification center. The vast majority of messages I won’t respond to, a few I will, and more I’ll respond to via other communication means that I prefer. You can be fairly certain that I’ll see everything.

Here’s the key takeaway that became very clear in the past month: the vast majority of emails are unnecessary. Even if you think they’re important at the time you get them, they’re usually not. Our brains are just hard-wired to respond to emails because society has taught us it’s rude not to. We think of them as letters — even the icons for apps like Gmail and Mac Mail make us think of them this way. It’s rude not to respond to a letter.

Screw that.

Such courtesy should go right out the same window that the U.S. Postal Service is heading out of. This is a new age, a different medium, and there needs to be different norms. In the past, it was likely that only your close friends and relatives would have your address to be able to send you a letter. And it would take days or even weeks to get there. Email is totally different.

Further, another thing I learned in not responding to emails is something I’ve long suspected: one of the biggest problems with email is that when you do respond, it often prompts another response in return. This is due to the very thing I just mentioned: people think it’s rude not to respond. This creates a vicious cycle of a potentially perpetual email chain. And it often happens fast and furious.

By not responding, you cut this chain off before it begins. And again, most emails are unnecessary, so an even greater percentage of responses are unnecessary. We shouldn’t feel bad not responding.

But plenty of folks have tried in the past to lead a rallying cry for email etiquette reform. I’m afraid the only thing that will actually work is for some new email frontend that forces limitations, to take off. I mean really take off — it would have to become insanely popular. Again, the Gmail Lite idea.

Until that day comes, I’m happy to be the jerk that doesn’t respond to emails.