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Broken email – part 2

By October 27, 2009Uncategorized

There were some good comments to the last post about broken email, which caused me to think a little more about what the problem is (the solution, if there is one, will require a careful description of the problem).  And the first thing to observe is that there is really more than one cause to the problem of email overload.

One factor that makes email hard to deal with is the structural underpinning of email.  We could spend a lot of time laying all of this out (and I certainly invite people to do so in the comments).  Here are a couple of quick observations: (1) email was not designed with authentication in mind (which is one reason that spam and spoofing are so easy to do), and so it makes it hard to keep out noise; (2) most email programs handle each email conversation as separate communications, and have no way of grouping related conversations together (gmail does keep related conversations together in 'threads'); (3) even in 'threaded conversations' it's not feasible to add a new participant to the conversation in a way that allows the person to read all the communications that have occurred before they got involved.

Google Wave was created with the idea of addressing these structural problems.  I have been playing with it for a few weeks, and I can see where it would be very useful in creating better structure around group conversations that are presently happening in email.  There are, of course, other ways for these kinds of group conversations to occur other than in email (i.e. online services such as Basecamp or other project management tools).  But most people think of email as the way to collaborate, and so Google Wave is trying to fix the structural problems of email so that the collaboration aspect can be improved.

It's way too early to make any assessments about Google Wave, other than the assessment that it would be more useful if more people were using it.  A collaboration tool that only a few people can use (because Google Wave is in pre-beta stage) is necessarily limited.  Welcome to 'Advanced Obviousness 101.'  

So while we are waiting for Google Wave to come out of its cocoon and then find out how much of the email overload problem it can solve what else can we focus on?

I think that the other part of the email problem is social.  It's way too easy to send someone an email, and there is no way for the sender to know how busy the recipient is when the email is sent.  Spammers don't care how busy you are, but that's another story.  The net result is that many people's email inbox is larded with communications from people who seek little bits of information.  The sender doesn't have any sense of how many of these little 'request chunks' are already taking up the recipient's time.  And time is finite, at least in the human sense of 'doing work.'

I don't know that any 'technological tool' can fix this problem.  Maybe it's possible to create a massive online status light for each person.  But are people going to accept this convention?  Are they going to modify their behavior and send people less email when they can detect that the person is busy?  I don't know the answers to these questions.  I just know that a lot of people have trouble with their email, and in many cases it's not just because they are 'poor information managers.'

When you have someone who is adept at using technology and willing to try all the techniques that help sort and filter email, and yet they still are not keeping up, then you have a problem that's not rooted in poor organization skills.  It's rooted in the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong with email.  Maybe it's a technical problem, or maybe it's a problem with how everyone uses email.  

What do you think?  Do you have problems sometimes with email overload?  Have you been able to diminish the problem?  If so, how?  Do you know other people who have problems that are similar to yours?  Have you conquered the email overload problem and achieved a state of supreme bliss?  If so, please leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

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  • My answer to e-mail overload was setting up my own IMAP server.

    My thunderbird built-in spam filter was quite bad. I now have SpamAssassin on my server and it works much, much better. I now get about 1-2 spam messages a day. That’s down from 100 a day with the Thunderbird filter (I get about 1000 spam and 400 non-spam a day).

    Second, I wrote a large set of Sieve scrips to automatically sort my e-mail into various subfolders. Bug notifications get grouped per project, e-mail lists are sorted out per list, spam goes into the junk folder (and anything with a rating over 12 gets deleted unseen), work addresses get filtered into a special folder, etcetera. These scripts are quite complicated.

    Now my inbox is down to about 20 e-mails a day. That’s 20 non-work related e-mails witten by genuine people trying to contact me directly. No lists, newsletters, automated notifications or anything. Hey, I can deal with that!

    In short: obsessive filtering and sorting.

    Also, I only check mail 4 times a day (in the morning, during lunch, shortly before the end of the work day and once in the evening). And like Crag above, I keep my inbox at zero everytime.

  • John Martin says:

    One way of handling the “what’s my status” problem is to tie your notification system into both your calendar and a timer.

    Consider this –

    1) If your email system is “aware” of your calendar, messages arriving from a “known” address during a scheduled event could cause an automated response saying something like – “I am in a meeting right now, I’ll get back to you when I’m free. Thanks!”

    2) You could also configure a chron function for “known” address messages to respond after “x” minutes with a predefined message if you haven’t. Your could even have a template that fills in certain information from your contacts list to “personalize” the response

    Make sense?

  • Shannon Phillips says:

    Thanks for the update. (BTW: I was mostly just giving you a hard time with my “cardinal rule” comment.)

    When I was a teenager, my mother went from being a stay-at-home mom, to being a working mom. One of her biggest pet peeves was when people at work, whether in-person or by telephone, would ask her if she is busy. I remember calling her once at work and asking her if she was busy. I got an earful. She said, “I am at work, of course I am busy.” I think that said as much about her work ethic as it did about some of the people at her federal government job.

    My point is that if everyone thinking about sending an email to someone at work would assume that the recipient is busy, then they would probably send fewer emails.

    (And as much as I like politeness and try to drill it into my children’s heads, I wish people would stop sending me emails that just say “thank you.”)

  • Craig Bayer says:

    I don’t think there is one answer for anyone, but here is how I handle email:

    It helps to be ocd in certain areas of life.

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