I’ve been giving a lot of thought to email in recent weeks and I have concluded that, despite what many are saying, email itself is not broken. The way we use email is broken.
When email was first introduced to the business world, the vision was email would replace the paper based letter. And this is exactly what happened. Unfortunately, over the following years we humans went and blurred the lines to the point where email started to be used as a sort of ‘formal’ text messaging service and a replacement for a simple telephone call.
These ‘additional’ uses have led to an increase in the amount of email people get. A business professional in 2015 is getting on average 50 emails per day. Back in the 1990s we did not get 50 letters per day, but we did get more than 50 communication inputs spread among letters, internal memos, text messages (which were usually only from our friends), telephone calls and in the late 1990s MSN Messenger / Yahoo Messenger. So, in my non-scientific theory, communication between business people has stayed relatively static, but the way we are communicating has narrowed to one or two methods. It is this change in the way we communicate that is causing us to feel overwhelmed by email.
As a consequence of this, people are looking for new tools to deal with email. I don’t see how that is the solution. Recently I have been looking at some alternative email apps to see what they are doing and what they are trying to change. When you begin from the principle that email itself is not broken, you begin to see those advocating a change are looking at the problem from the wrong end. Most are working on the principle that if we shuffle around email messages, we will have an easier time dealing with it. No! That is just shuffling messages around. It is not dealing with email. Having the ability to move an email until tomorrow with a simple swipe of the finger does not solve the problem. It just kicks the problem down the road. The email still has to be dealt with. Another ‘solution’ I have seen is to change the way our messages are shown, somehow this will make us feel better. Err… no. That does not solve the problem either. Just because my message list looks good does not mean I will have any less work to do.
Google’s attempt to ‘reinvent’ email by putting them into categories (Google Inbox) again does not solve the problem. Just because I no longer have all my email in one ‘inbox’ does not deal with the problem at all. Now I have to go through multiple inboxes to see all my new mail. Of course some will argue that pre-sorting email into categories helps, but I just do not see how. The email, whatever category it is in, still needs reading and a decision still needs making.
The solution is to go back to the days before email went mainstream and we were still communicating via traditional letters. Back then, we received two lots of post per day (we did in the UK anyway) one arrived around 8:00am, and the second post arrived sometime before lunch. When the mail came in to the office it was sorted and handed out to the relevant person and then placed in their physical inbox. Throughout the day letters got processed, replied to (if required) and filed in the relevant file. By the end of the day, our inbox was empty — or at least that was the goal.
Following this simple method, all we need is a good old fashioned email inbox that checks for email two to three times per day. Once an email has been dealt with, we remove it from our inbox and place it in the appropriate file, or delete it. By the end of the day our inboxes should be empty.
Quick, urgent requests should be communicated in a different way. If a file was urgently required in the 1990s we would telephone our colleague and ask them to send the file to us. Back then it would take a day or so to arrive by mail, or we could fax a copy over. Today, we have email and the document can be sent as a PDF file directly to the person requesting the file.
If someone emails something that we feel should be dealt with by telephone then we could pick up the phone and call them. I know this might be difficult with people working across time zones, but we can make the call when our international partners are awake. Likewise, if an email comes in we feel should be handled with a text message, we can take the initiative and reply via text message.
Sometimes, I feel people think technology is the answer to all our problems. Often it is not. Occasionally we need to actually do work to solve the problem, not kick things down the road in the hope it will go away. It won’t. Deal with it now and finish with it. That will solve most of your email problems. New, complex technology is not going to do that for you. It is up to us how we communicate. Of course if a record needs to be kept on an issue, then email may well be the correct form of communication, but a record does not always have to be kept. Confirming the start time of a meeting or conference does not require a record. This can be confirmed via a telephone call or a simple text message.
The simple thing here, as with all communication, is to just deal with it. It is up to you to take control and decide how a particular communication needs to be delivered. You can start a message by the company’s internal messaging service or a telephone call. With email, the delete key is a powerful tool. Most newsletters, flyers and notices can be read, details entered into a calendar and then deleted. Just hit the key.
We need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and take control of our email system. We will feel so much better and less overwhelmed when we do.