Death by email: how we broke our inboxes [part one]

Surprised nerd hides behind a computer keyboard over white background

This two-part post is about email. In part one, Jon Sumroy looks at why email is broken and how this affects us. In part two, he tells you how to survive the email overload, how to prevent ‘death by email’ and how to get to Inbox Zero! These posts are based on the highly commended seminar and workshop “Life After Email”.

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Fourteen days without email!

First I marked my youngest son’s Bar Mitzvah: a week of ceremony, sentiment and celebration.

Good old fashioned quill and parchment. Tal Aviv Sumroy’s Bar Mitzvah (image: Gadi Fiszerman)

Then a family vacation with kinsfolk from near and far. I set an “out-of-office” reply and, for the first time in twenty-one years, I ignored email.

Twenty-one years ago, in September 1992, I walked into a grand old building in the center of London; my first day as a marketing trainee. This was a Unilever office and the beginning of eight years in one of the world’s premier schools of marketing and business.

I was allocated a desk with a telephone. Just a telephone. No computer, no internet, no email. The secretarial pool typed for us; information was all on paper, in a library! And the processing power came from marketing trainees. I was learning advertising, which for Axe deodorant involved filming whatever excited teenage boys.

Out of the blue, everything changed. Dwarfing the telephone on my desk, was a VAX computer terminal; a breathtaking work of science fiction for mailing messages, immediately, anywhere, electronically … we called it email. That first month, young Jon Sumroy sent 22 emails. Yes, just 22 emails in the whole month. Oh, how things have changed!

Dwarfing the telephone on my desk, was a VAX computer terminal … we called it email (image: unknown)

Today, email is out of control. Two point two-billion email users worldwide, send more than 100-trillion emails each year and the average corporate users will send and receive about 112 email messages each day… and that’s just the average.

I write this with 12 724 emails in the inboxes of five different email accounts. Since leaving the corporate world, I receive 40 emails per day. Well below average, yet if I spend 2-minutes on each, it is more time than I spend reading books, which explains my stack of unread masterpieces, collecting dust.

Email has taken over our lives. Hugh MacLeod the cartoonist famously tweeted:

He then designed a cartoon to match. Do you catch yourself telling your partner/boss/therapist that you are ‘clearing emails’, as if it is a valuable task in its own right?

This isn’t what work’s supposed to be about (image: Hugh MacLeod)

Email is broken

First, there is just too much email. Powerful junk filters deal with the 70% that is spam, so where is it all coming from? In the good-old-days, you would take out a quill and parchment, carefully craft a letter, dab dry the ink, fold precisely, swaddle in an envelope, seal and post. Time would pass, the letter would arrive … and, like you, I’ve lost patience already. In the time it took to write the last sentence I could have sent and replied several times to emails, copying untold numbers of people and blind copying even more. The mass of email is from us!

I once started a new job with a large team across three countries. I quickly realized the company was afflicted with email diarrhoea.

Everyone CC’ed all and sundry on everything, ‘reply-to-all’ was the norm and I drowned under 300 emails a day! My conversations with a small number of direct reports was enough to let me manage; so I instructed the team to only send emails that required my input. In a classic Cobra Effect, the unintended consequences of trying to control email made things much worse. Seeing my absence from the address list, recipients would forward the email, keeping me in-the-loop and exponentially exploding the number of emails I received.

Secondly, emails are too long, with too many attachments.

No matter how you use email, no one you’re emailing wants to read a long essay or respond to 10 questions. We are all busy, and we all value our time. We can see that Darwinian evolution is making email an old person’s game … how many Millenials send email? They don’t. They post, message, chat and tweet. All are much shorter formats. So we old people are to blame as we compose emails as if we are still writing on parchment with a quill and ink.

Finally, email is a poor tool for project management, collaboration and task management. But that is how we are using it. How many important tasks are lost way down in your inbox as the torrential flow of new emails drown the old ones? How many teams of people are trying to collaborate on projects by emails back and forth as everyone looses track of versions and edits? How many times have you scrolled through emails to find contact details, addresses, meeting times, etc.

As my newly licensed older son drove us back from the family vacation, I pulled out my iPhone and started working my way through two weeks of email. There has to be a better way!

Next week, in Part 2 of this post, we will look at that better way and how to get to Inbox Zero!

Let me know what you think. What do you love or hate about email? How do you survive the daily torrent? What tools do you use to make email more efficient?

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