Email overload

Posted in Email at 10:37 pm by ducky

I’ve been watching the blogosphere “discover” email overload recently. Merlin Mann has recently posted about email overload on 43folders about Larry Lessig declaring email bankruptcy, and Itzy Sabo has an entire blog about email overload. Boingboing.net just posted that one of their authors will be interviewing Mark Hurst about email overload.

I’m a bit bothered by an implicit characterization that “email is the problem.” This isn’t fair to the medium. Your problem is that lots of people give you stuff to do. (“Read my message” falls into the category of “stuff to do”.)

People have been overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that other people give them to do since long before email. Before email, I would get overwhelmed by phone calls, memos about so-and-so getting promoted, packages from HR detailing the new benefits plan, people stopping by my office, presentations, meetings meetings meetings and more meetings. The fact that all of the stuff to do now arrives via email does not make it email’s fault.

Yes, it is true that more people send me things by email than used to send me paper documents. However, I don’t have to go to nearly as many presentations as in the days before email. Once upon a time, back when I started working in 1984, it was routine to go to a meeting where someone would present information in almost a lecture format. These were pretty boring because only about 20% applied to me, but I had to sit through the 80% that applied to the other people in the room.

The only alternative to presentations was for the presenter to instead write a big thick report and either make 20 copies and put them in everyone’s snailmailboxes or have one copy with a distribution list written on it. When the one person read it, he or she would check off his or her name and pass it on to the next person.

The big thick report would have to be big and thick because, like the presentation, only about 10% applied to me. Unfortunately, the big thick report had to cover not only everything that any of the readers might be interested in, but it also had to anticipate any questions that any of the participants might have, because it wasn’t easy to ask questions later. I couldn’t ask the bigthickreport, and I probably would have a hard time finding the author to ask a question. He or she was likely to be in a meeting, and in 1984, we didn’t even have voicemail. I could write a message, walk over to their desk, and leave it on their desk, but that was a pain. Now, with email, what reaches me tends to be more focused to me and doesn’t have to answer every single last question, so tends to be shorter.

Similarly, I save time from not having to prepare presentations or to write big thick reports. Instead of sending out a monolithic memos later, I send out smaller, more targeted messages sooner. I can also leave out things that my audience probably doesn’t care about. If they need clarification, they can send me email.

In addition, if you are an online celebrity (like Larry Lessig), of course you are going to get lots of email — just as you would have gotten lots of snailmail if you were a celebrity before 1994. Getting fan email is as much the dark side of being an online celebrity as it is the dark side of email.

Furthermore, the problem looks worse than it is because the people who are most widely-read are (by definition!) on-line celebrities, and who will unsurprisingly get more email than most people.

If someone doesn’t have a problem with email overload, they probably aren’t going to say so. I debated for about five minutes whether I was brave enough to say this: I do not have a problem with email overload. I hesitated before writing that because I was worried that

  • my friends might take that as carte blanche to forward me that stupid joke about the cat and the polar bear.
  • friendly strangers might feel free to ask me what the joke about the cat and the polar bear is. (There is no joke about a cat and a polar bear. I made it up.)
  • grumpy strangers might take it as an invitation to flame me for what they interpreted as me saying that they don’t really have a problem. (For them: you do have a problem, really!)
  • I wouldn’t look as interesting. If I admit that I don’t have a problem with email overload, then people might think that I must be a total loser with no friends, a slacker whose boss doesn’t give her nearly enough to do, and not at all famous or interesting.

(I finally decided as the author of a book on email overload, I really should be brave enough to admit that I don’t have a problem with email overload.)

Now, I will freely acknowledge that email programs are not good at helping you get through your email. There are lots of things email programs could be doing better. But that’s the program‘s fault, not the email messages’ fault.

(Side note: basically, email programs don’t realize that your email inbox is a to-do list. Mark Hurst advocates emailing your action items to his to-do tool gootodo.com, but that merely shifts your to-do items from your inbox to somewhere else. What I heard over and over again when I was doing research for my email overload books was that once a message moved out of the inbox, they forgot about it. I am concerned that messages you send to gootodo.com will be similarly out of sight, out of mind. The one thing that might save gootodo.com is that it is the one to-do list manager that will let you defer messages.)

I will also freely admit that there are idiots in the world who send you messages that they shouldn’t. But that’s your correspondent’s fault, not the email messages’ fault (and not your fault, either). Furthermore, those idiots were also the ones who used to call pointless meetings, ambush you at the water cooler, stop by your office and drone on and on, etc. If I have to choose between a meeting that turns out to be pointless and an email message that turns out to be pointless, I would much much rather have the pointless message. If I know someone is an idiotic time-waster, I can trash their message pretty quickly.

I am convinced that in balance, email has saved a lot more time than it has wasted.

(Props to Itzy Sabo, who also has a “don’t shoot the messenger” post that I didn’t discover until after I had written this.)

1 Comment »

  1. Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard » Blog Archive » Slaves to the inbox said,

    July 12, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    […] One other angle on this subject that I did not work into the article comes from Ducky Sherwood, who wrote books on how to handle e-mail burdens some years ago (and who also has a great resource page on all things email): I’m a bit bothered by an implicit characterization that “email is the problem.” This isn’t fair to the medium. Your problem is that lots of people give you stuff to do. (”Read my message” falls into the category of “stuff to do”.) People have been overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that other people give them to do since long before email. Tags: productivity, email, gtd, pims, personal information management […]

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