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Email is broken, and it’s all our fault

Prior to last weekend I had 7492 emails in my inbox. That is NOT an exaggeration. I “inbox zeroed” it. By the end of the following Monday, I had 187 messages. I suspect it is not a coincidence that 187 is the police code for murder, because I’m pretty convinced Gmail is trying to kill me.

I’m not the only one. Many of you are burnt out and suffering from email fatigue. I can think of dozens of startups over the last few years designed to tackle some of these problems. I have used and continue to use some of them. Sanebox, Mailstrom, Boomerang, etc. People are claiming Slack is the new email killer.

Google, provider of more email addresses than anyone in the world, has released “Inbox” as a new app layer designed to stand on top of Gmail to make it more manageable. We have reached the point where we need an app to manage an app. An App to manage an app? That’s getting dangerously close to turning my inbox into the plot of Inception, and that seems way too complicated for my brain to process several dozen times a day.

The issue isn’t email itself. As a concept, it’s just a message delivery system. The issue is that it lacks a singular focus. Your Facebook Messenger is typically just for friends. Twitter is usually more business oriented. Project management systems like Basecamp keep that singular focus. Text messages don’t carry that same dread.

But email? That’s always a surprise. Could be a great email from a client. Could be a signed contract. Could be an angry client. Could be 1 of a dozen mailing lists I’m on. Could be an internal thing. Could be a Viagra ad. Could be grandma saying Hi.

And group message chains? Nothing upsets me more. I hate when I’m one of five people on an email, and you reply, and by the time you send your message, half of the rest of the thread has replied with new updates, rendering your original reply irrelevant, and thus necessitating a new reply. Sisyphus never knew a struggle like this.

There are lots of methods for managing email: Systems, apps, etc, but they all mask the fact that it’s a broken tool for business. We’ve chosen it because we don’t really have a better option.

I don’t claim to know the perfect solution. If I did, I’d be busy building it rather than sitting here complaining about it.

For me it’s been about using my email box as a filter. To-do’s go into our ticket system. Projects get dumped into the PM system. Interesting things I want to read go into my reading list for a rainy day. Most of it honestly goes in the trash. Unless it has a clear and definable action that needs a reply, I’m hitting delete.

When I’m done, the only thing clearly left in my email are the items it was designed for: Conversations I need to have.

These are things that I know are important, but I don’t know exactly what the next step is. We need to collaborate to figure that out. And as soon as I have that, that action gets funneled into the appropriate channel.

I’m a firm believer in email minimization. I don’t know if my email load is normal or not. I suspect it’s on the high side, but I’m sure some of you get more. Let’s take my Monday haul of 187 messages as an example. That’s not an unusual day for me.

If we assume that each message takes maybe 30 seconds to process, that’s 93 minutes a day answering or processing emails. In a 5 day week, that’s 7.75 hours. Every time your brain switches tasks there’s a time loss there. Even if you only check email twice a day, you can easily use one full quarter of your week answering email.

That’s ridiculous. One quarter of your professional life burned up to Forwards and CC’s? Your number might be more or less, but if that number is 10 percent, is that really any better?

I was tempted to close this post with something akin to the phrase “I want to watch email die and dance on its grave” but that’s not accurate. Someone needs to fix us, not email. We’re missing the point. We’re taking a basic tool and making it do everything.

I don’t know who will ultimately solve the problem, but when you do… Please, don’t email me about it.