Email Isn’t Broken; You Are

Every few weeks it seems we hear again about how email is broken and some new technology or team is out to fix it. Yesterday the story involved some ex-Google Wave team members who are attempting to reinvent email.

Email is not broken. Perhaps your system for dealing with it is broken.

BustedI process several hundred email messages per day and at the end of the day each one is dealt with in some fashion. Dealt with. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I read the message, or that I replied to it, but that it’s been handled. Assuming that you’re required to handle email1, read on.

In general, when I chat with folks overwhelmed by email, I find that they have problems with one of three areas:

  • Inability to read
  • Inability to process
  • Inability to eliminate

Read Email Better

You need to be able to quickly read email. And when I say read, I mean “understand what the message says.” One aspect, to which you’ll say “duh” but probably haven’t spent any time to improve, is pure reading speed. How quickly can you read? Have you ever measured this? Have you done anything to improve your reading speed? Someone who can read 40% faster than you can plow through incoming email 40% faster than you. If you’re spending 2 hours per day reading email, that other guy is spending just over an hour.

The other key to reading email better is to stop reading all of your email. Skim. Use the subject lines. If the subject line of the message indicates it’s not of importance or something that needs to be investigated futher, get rid of it and don’t even look at the body. When you start reading the body of a message, learn to skim through and pick out the key points. One key point is what are you supposed to do as a result of the message? Are you expected to reply? Are you expected to file the bit of knowledge away for future reference? Are you supposed to take some offline action? The quicker you can figure out the answer to this question, the quicker you’ve started what should be the next step in email processing (see next section).

Process Email Better

A big timesink of email processing is the amount of time spent deciding what to do with a message, and then wasting extra time with overhead or processing of said message. I don’t know anyone who gets paid to read email, so let’s get it behind us and move onto things that might actually make money, like responding to some email, selling products, making something, or engaging in some networking or business development.

If you’re spending time moving your hand to your mouse and clicking and dragging email around to different folders, you’re wasting time. Sure, it’s 5 seconds per message, but if you do this with 100 messages per day, you’ve wasted over eight minutes. You need an email system that:

  • Lets you easily find messages based on a text search (this eliminates the need to folder-ize everything)
  • Allows you to move messages to an archive with a keystroke combination

GMail’s web client can do both of these things. Desktop apps such as Sparrow can as well. If your email software sucks, use better software. It pains me to watch people spend several seconds per message clicking and dragging items into nested folders, which will then take several seconds to navigate when one wants to retrieve said mail.

How I process email, in no particular order:

  • If a message is useless, it gets deleted.
  • If a message contains information I might want in the future, it gets archived.
  • If a message requires a reply that will take less than a couple minutes, I reply. Right then. The mental cost of having to come back to messages that simply need a quick reply is a huge cost compared with just getting it done.
  • If a message requires a reply at some point in the future (not soon), I create a task in OmniFocus, give it an appropriate start date, and archive the message.
  • If a message requires a reply soon that will take more than a couple minutes, I leave it in my mailbox and it becomes an implicit task to be completed before the end of the day. “End of the day” can be defined how you’d like; maybe it means before you leave your office or maybe it means before you go to sleep, but if there’s mail in your inbox, it needs to be dealt with. Maybe that means a reply. Maybe that means storing it away and creating a task in OmniFocus (or your to-do list system of choice). But email can’t live in your inbox for days or weeks.

Stop kidding yourself about stuff you might do. You know what I mean. Those messages that you might take action on? Or those people that might eventually get a reply? Stop joking with yourself and just delete or archive those messages.

It’s a few years old, but the processing workflow from David Allen’s Getting Things Done is still timely today. If you haven’t read the book, it’s an easy read and quite affordable. I recommend it even if you’re not going to dive into the full GTD system.

Eliminate Email Better

Eliminating the amount of incoming email is a fantastic way to improve your email efficiency. Here are some specific things to eliminate:

  • Mailing lists for technologies, groups, or other entities of which you don’t have an active day to day interest. If you really think you want this email, switch your email delivery to a digest form so that you’re only getting one message per day or week rather than every message as it’s sent.
  • Social network notifications (“bacn“) that’s redundant with other notifications. Facebook gives you notifications when you hit the Facebook website… do you really need it via email as well? If you’re looking at new Twitter followers based on email notifications, you’re wasting time. Do you really need an email interruption to tell you that someone liked that thing you posted to Pinterest? I didn’t think so. Eliminate this email.
  • Advertising. Sure, you subscribe to Office Depot’s weekly email because every once in a while it might contain a good deal. But is it worth the mental and time overhead of dealing with that message every week in hopes of saving $5 on a case of paper?
  • Daily deals (Groupon, Google Offers, etc). If the deal’s that great, you’re going to hear about it via other means. Heck, when the deals are good, sometimes it seems like a neverending stream of it on Facebook, Twitter, etc. There’s no need to clutter up my inbox with that as well.

On Volume, and Moving Forward

While most of the so-called email overload is caused by poor planning or management (which can be remedied by the various tips above), there is another possibility: you might simply have too much work (including email) to do. That isn’t an email problem. That’s a workload problem, and it needs to be addressed in a similar fashion to other workload problems.

The important things will prioritize themselves. I suspect that, like me, you’re responding quickly to those who want to give you money for a product or service. I suspect that you reply or react efficiently to a family member or close friend with an urgent situation. The messages with are truly important aren’t the problem. The problem is the fluff, the cruft, and the inefficient processes which prevent you from working with the important stuff.

The good news is that it’s a lot easier to improve our processes than it is to replace a deeply-entrenched technology that isn’t really flawed.

Also: email is not dead. Death is dead.


  1. If you don’t have to do email, and you don’t like email, stop doing email. You can’t? Then you have to do email, and you might as well figure out how to do it in a way that you don’t hate. 

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  • Great post Aaron! You may be surprised to hear I actually agree with you for the most part. In our “Working outside the Inbox” (https://www.ibm.com/developerworks/mydeveloperworks/blogs/nfrsblog/entry/working_outside_the_inbox_step_3_move_conversations_to_the_right_home10?lang=en) initiative, we’ve been tackling the e-mail ‘problem’ from a different angle: working smarter and getting the conversations in the right places to foster knowledge sharing and more effective collaboration. The only part I mildly disagree with you about are the notifications… in our system, e-mail is solely a notification tool used to highlight when content is elsewhere to act upon. Our driving factor on this is not specific to dealing with e-mail overload, really, but more on improving collaboration and getting the work outside of email where more people have visibility and can benefit directly from it.

    • Thanks for chiming in. There’s obviously not a single right way of doing things, and I didn’t mean to imply that all email notifications are bad… so if email is the only notification method, that seems like a legitimate use. My objection is when it’s redundant: if you’re checking Facebook every day, for example, do you really also need an email from Facebook to suggest you log in and check Facebook?

      • Oddly enough, I ignore the FB notifications, and rely on the email notes to trigger me to pop onto my FB Page and address items. This, however, is a business choice I made, as I DON’T get FB notices from my personal acct. and actually use the notifications inherent to FB. And yes, you’re absolutely right, there’s no single right way, just the right way that works for you :)

  • Great post Aaron. I wholeheartedly agree with the concepts you have presented here. Regarding horrid e-mail clients, I discovered a quick little hack to help those who are bound to horrid Outlook for work to gain Gmail like Archiving ability that can be programmed to have a keystroke hotkey. The how-to is at http://lifehacker.com/5175347/add-a-gmail+like-archive-button-to-microsoft-outlook. This has been a lifesaver in my business e-mail handling productivity.

    Another side point is to use e-mail when it is actually the best medium. If a text message, phone call, IM, etc. is better suited to get the information rather than playing e-mail ping-pong, pursue those options and help everyone’s e-mail clutter.

  • We may be speaking past each other. You seem to be defending email-the-technology, which is a little crufty, but not in my mind the problem. My problem is there is no implementation that meets my needs, defined as:
    * persistent availability across any device, even ones I don’t own, with consistent behavior
    * fine-grained searchability and filtering
    * not subject to data-mining by a third party

    In other words, GMail functionality without the service provider gathering and analysing data about me. When I signed up for GMail in 2004, I thought that surely someone would offer this within a year or two. I would happily pay for it. But nearly a decade later, no one even seems interested in trying to compete with GMail on functionality.

  • I think you make some strong points on how to improve emailing speeds. But I disagree with this post overal because I think our tools should always adjust to us and not the other way around.

    We humans build tools to make our lives easier, if some tools can be optimized because we can build better ones that should always happen. If we can build a tool that will get us the same gains without changing our way of thinking / interacting with the tool we should always go that direction. (Un)fortunately we also have the ability to adjust ourselves relatively easily as you address in this post, however this should never be the case with software.

    I think this is a great post on ‘How to improve your email interaction’ because you make some excellent points that can speed up a normal working flow, but I don’t think this should be a ‘We shouldn’t improve email because we can just adjust ourselves’ post.

    • I agree that better tools are great, but I’d also argue that the tools we have are probably “good enough” and that many people simply need better training (or less stubbornness) to use those tools in better ways. Instead of spending a minute filing a message into a deep nested set of folders, press one key and send it to an archive where it can later be the target of a search. Instead of subscribing to newsletters that we really don’t need, stop handing over our email address to every company who asks for it.

      While I hope auto manufacturers continue to innovate with new vehicles, I don’t blame Honda if I run out of gas. At some point, proper use of the tools needs to be a responsibility (perhaps that was a poor analogy but I hope you understand my gist).