Cutting Email Down to Size

ScreenshotIBM’s Luis Suarez is the latest social networker to argue for reducing your dependence on email as a productivity tactic. Tired of spending hours a day on email, Suarez worked to stop the cycle of emails generating emails, reducing his incoming stream by 80% in a week. Among the tactics he recommends:

  • Answer questions via blog postings or wiki pages, rather than email, so that future contacts with the same question can find the answer without asking you.
  • Use instant messages for short answers; switch to phone if a conversation lasts more than three minutes.
  • Use a feed reader instead of email to track relevant content; this gives you more control of what you receive and when.
  • Encourage your contacts to follow your lead, so they cut down on the overall email glut too.

I like Suarez’s advice as a first set of concrete steps you can take to reduce one of the big productivity issues for many web workers. But I think there’s a broader context here as well. The reason so many people dream about reducing email is that email has been fabulously successful in recent years. And if you’re going to attack the email problem, you need to be careful that you don’t create other problems in its place.

If you go back far enough in history, the preferred means of communicating with your business contacts was face-to-face conversation – because that was pretty much the only means of communication. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the Royal Mail introduced the Uniform Penny Post, businesses started depending on the mail: everyone who mattered could be reached by a written letter, at a known (and reasonable) price. Move forward a hundred years, and although mail was still important, the telephone was ubiquitous: you could pick up the phone and reach anyone who mattered in business.

Email is the most recent of these high-penetration means of communication. Just in the last decade we’ve reached the point where, generally, everyone you need to contact has an email address. And you can send them as much email as you want for a known, low price. Face-to-face and mail and telephonic communication are still useful and important in some scenarios, but business is driven forward by email.

Email is also one of the tools (along with the spreadsheet) that just about every business computer user understands. And just as the spreadsheet ended up being used as a low-rent database due to its familiarity, email has gone beyond simple personal communication to bring us notices, newsletters, chain letters, and (of course) spam.

While some people – like Luis Suarez – may be able to communicate with just about everyone via non-email social networks, that is not yet true for the bulk of users. Try this simple experiment: look into your inbox over the course of a week, and ask yourself how many contacts you have other connections with – via Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, or elsewhere. If it’s 75% or more, you’re a good candidate for pushing communications on to social networks. if it’s closer to 25%, email is likely to still be one of the more important tools in your life.

Of course, even if email is still your core communications medium, you can still find ways to cut down on the noise and focus on the signal:

  • Make sure you’re using a good spam filter
  • Use rules to filter the important stuff to the top, and the rest to the bottom
  • Unsubscribe from mailing lists and newsletters that you never read
  • Start the move to other networks, even if you can’t finish it

Whatever changes you make, remember that web-based communication in one way or another is liable to remain an important part of your web working job. If you cut down on email by shoving things out of your inbox and on to instant messages and RSS feeds, you shouldn’t necessarily expect to spend less total time communicating. A realistic goal is to get all of your communications into the most efficient existing channels. There are still things best handled by email, and by moving notifications and quick chats elsewhere, you can concentrate better on those things.

Photo from stock.xchng user GlennPeb.