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You, too, can reply to 0.3% of your email…if you get 15,000 messages per month. by Jared Aug 2

MG Siegler’s TechCrunch post today discusses the fact that he spent a month not responding to people over email.  He actually did respond, but to just 43 of the 15,000 messages in his inbox. Kudos to MG for putting himself through a tough experiment, but neither its conditions nor recommendations are applicable to you.

Email IS a problem—it’s where we spend between a third and half of our business days, and very few of us ever clear our inbox or feel in control. This weight is on many of us throughout the day, and it obviously got on top of MG.

Single parent of 15, or comfortable bachelor?

But let’s be clear—MG is not you. Not many people get 15,000 emails in a month (500 per day).  Entrepreneurs reading TechCrunch maybe get 100 per day, and a typical employee gets far fewer.

In the real world, serious email volume is mostly present in two cases–larger companies, and those in the public eye (journalists, public figures, etc):

  • In larger companies – distribution lists, announcements, and discussions with large groups fill most inboxes, often driving the number to over 150 messages per day. (For management at larger companies, the volume is often over 300).
  • For people in the public eye – nearly all of their emails are from outside of their company/close-circle. Someone like MG likely gets 99% of email from people who only message him a few times per year and most likely have never met him.

When you start digging deeper into email in the workplace, you’ll see that the types of messages people receive, the responsibilities tied to them, and the timelines associated with a response are very different. I should respond differently to a Fortune 500 sales lead than MG to a PR agent’s startup pitch, etc.

Picture one person raising 8 kids as a single parent in the city. Picture someone else as a bachelor(ette) with a 9-5 in the same city. They both will comment on the virtues/pains of that city, but at the end of the day their needs are fundamentally different. If you’re discussing a city, schools and safety will likely be a part of the conversation depending on who you’re chatting with.

But I very rarely see people talk about how their email circumstance is completely different than someone else’s. People spend close to half their day in their emails, but that time is spent very differently.

Unfortunately, MG didn’t address these differences.  But his struggle is like raising 15 kids in a 2-BR apartment. If that were my situation, I too would look for other options…or maybe even run away like he did.

So is email a problem if you’re not MG Siegler?

Every beneficial technology has its drawbacks, and email is no exception.  The two biggest problems with email (from my 9 years experience building solutions & training in email productivity):

  • It’s the accumulated volume in your inbox that’s overwhelming
  • It’s the constant interruptions that keeping you away from your task at hand

The only real way to resolve them that I’ve found to be effective:

  • Turn off email when you’re not working on email (i.e., check email a few times per day, rely on tools like AwayFind not to miss things)
  • Have a system for processing the inbox when you’re there (Getting Things Done, Inbox Zero, etc – and, seriously, use a task list!)

What About Other Email Clients? Is Email Broken?

I agree with MG that there’s room for improvement in email, and that other forms of communication have won their place.

The area where there’s been the most progress is the area where there’s the most room to gain -– changing the norms. As people begin to accept 1-sentence responses, better structure their questions, and carefully craft their subjects, email will be easier for both Q&A discussions and long term knowledge management. In other words, WHAT WE SAY AND HOW WE SAY IT (which is cultural, not technical) is the greatest opportunity for improving email.

As for other forms of communication, they certainly have their place—by shortening the message length (SMS/DM/Shortmail), setting expectations around the timeliness/likeliness of a reply (SMS), and involving the public (Quora, Facebook Status, Twitter, etc), there are distinct advantages to each of them.

Adding wikis and project management tools to the mix are usually the most obvious ways to improve on communication. These tools help to aggregate knowledge for others, improve on knowledge without having to follow deep into a thread, and they provide metadata that allows people to prioritize and find data later. People working together at a company (the main source of email overload, not outreach to press) can most benefit from these types of improvements to email tools (i.e., they shouldn’t use email when these tools exist).  (I could see MG arguing that these tools take more work than email does, but there’s a huge a payoff in the long-term.)

At the end of the day, email is the communication medium that is most like the real world—we talk to one or more persons, and we don’t cap the length of our discussions—but with the benefit of universal reach and the option of a delayed response. That’s something that all of the groups described above do need.

And like with the real world, email is generally between real people who often do deserve real responses. It’s up to you whether a particular person or a particular topic merits a reply (and it’s true, we sometimes have to say no), but my guess is that your ratio of reply won’t be the 0.3% that MG stumbled on as necessary.

Email itself is not broken. We all need to do our best to stop checking email so often, to better process our incoming mail, and to write more concise and worthwhile content. All of these things are manageable with the tools we have now.  At least those 99.7% of us who are not like MG with 14,957 unimportant emails a month.

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