This is not a rant against email. This is a story of hope.
It sounds nuts, but I really enjoy email, though I realize I’m in the tiny minority and that it’s legitimately unmanageable for many, especially those that don’t use clients that automatically thread messages by subject or label.
The complaints against email are universal and valid: Lines of lines of emails accumulate with the force of a snowball racing down the side of a mountain during an avalanche, and the business of crafting and answering emails only creates more email. It’s a never-ending cycle, making any “Inbox 0” achievement ephemeral at best.
I see three main reasons why email falls short. First, anyone has the ability to invade your inbox if he/she can get your email. Filters and labels help, but it’s not enough. Second, there are currently few tools in place to empower the recipient to limit the size of emails that come into his/her inbox, though one could imagine it wouldn’t be that hard to build these features into current products. Third, the work of creating context and prose around all these emails places a cognitive burden on the recipient to determine what action to take on the email, and then how to track that action to a point where it can be mercifully put to bed.
Twitter, to its credit, gets you quite far. There are no expectations around responding to public replies, and users can limit their DM inbox simply by which accounts they follow. Of course, those messages are limited to 140 characters in size, and while DMs are insanely effective for short bursts of private communication, oftentimes those conversations are moved back to email in order to coordinate. So, we’re back to the drawing board.
The plain fact is that email still remains a very strong channel and will continue to be for a long time to come. As anyone who has worked on user acquisition metrics will know, despite all the time we’re collectively spending on social networks, the click-through rates through other private social messaging systems is typically below the rates email can produce. Additionally, nearly everyone on the planet has been trained to check their email as the first and last things they do on a computing device. A billion people may be on Facebook and billions of tweets may be sent per week, but not everyone you need to communicate with is on these messaging services — they’re mainly using email.
And, then, after all this, here we are. Email is not going away.
I’ve concluded that the only thing we can do is to create systems and layers on top of our email in order to exert control on our work flow and time. To that end, I’ve been testing out a few new products and services and thought I’d share my opinions, but I’d also like collect your points of view in the comments below.
First, I’ve attempted to route most of my unsolicited emails through my About.me page. Anyone can send me a message through the site, limited by character size. The email I receive truncates any long message and I don’t feel compelled to write back if I don’t want to. But, my email is pasted all over the Internet, so this doesn’t solve all the problems.
Second, I’ve attempted to tie a Shortmail account to my Gmail, which limits emails by character size, and I’m excited to really test the service when it’s ready for it (you can import your contact lists from Gmail and Twitter, and start to convert over). At the moment, I never received a few test messages to my Shortmail, so I wasn’t able to test this integration. Even if I could tie it back into Gmail, this tie-in may only make sense for someone who receives an insane amount of inbound email and needs to place a restriction on the email flow immediately.
And, third, I’ve tried to convert inbound emails, both at work and personally, into action items. It boils down to asking, upon receiving each email: “What is the action item?” It’s really hard for me to create this new habit, but I’m trying. (I know there are many options in this category — too many to list here — such as Clear and Workflowy, among many others. Therefore, I’ll just share what I’ve been using and would be curious to know what works for you.)
At work, we’ve been using Asana for nearly all nontechnical tasks. I love the web app, the soft blue hues of the software, and how lightweight it feels. Your team members can send tasks to your Inbox (either from within the app or by forwarding an email to Asana, which is powerful), and then you get to mark if it’s something that will be done today, or if it’s upcoming, or if it’s for later. For each task, your teammates who are following that task can comment within the thread, and just that slight option actually reduces the amount of and size of correspondence around a task.
The single best part of Asana’s design is that you can control the order of your “Taskbox” and experience the satisfaction of marking a task as “complete” and then archiving it out of sight, out of mind. I’d be lying if I said that our team doesn’t go back into email for certain communications, but I have noticed that the number of emails has decreased, and that everyone knows what each other is working on. Adoption in the workplace is a bit easier since we all have to collaborate to get things done. It’s early in the process, but so far, the net-net is positive. (I’ve also been using Asana’s iPhone app, which looks nice but mimics the interaction design of the Facebook iOS app, a design that reduces my desire to use it on the go.)
For personal matters, I’ve converted all of my to-do lists and tasks to Orchestra, a beautifully designed iPhone app that also has a web app. I had been using Google Tasks, which is really easy because it rests within Gmail, where all of my work flow is, so I had to strong-arm myself to bring everything over to Orchestra. After I did, I realized it was worth the effort. The software design makes it feel as if I’m being more productive, which in turn motivates me to complete tasks faster and faster. I can now dictate my tasks into the Orchestra app, and see them update on the web in real-time.
I’ll even go so far to say that Orchestra, as a native iOS application, is one of the all-around slickest pieces of software I’ve seen on the iPhone platform. I’ve been trying to take each email and ask, “What is the action item from this thread?”, and then determine if it makes the cut into Orchestra. Although Orchestra has robust tools for delegating and managing the tasks of others, I haven’t used it personally in that sense yet. While it’s provided a productivity boost for me personally, I still have to go back to email to announce that other tasks have been completed, though I’m enjoying Orchestra much more than Google Tasks.
I’m resigned to believe that until I win the lottery, I’ll be checking my email constantly, and that I’ll continue to have to monitor it because it’s the best channel out there. Therefore, the only thing I can do to exert a bit more control is to ask of every email that comes in. I’m trying to train my brain to do that, but after using email for two decades, it turns out the switching costs are really complicated. That’s why we feel we’re drowning in a swirling sea of emails, and why products such as Asana and Orchestra provide me with a makeshift raft and navigation device. Here’s hoping we all make it safely to shore.