Email. We’re doing it wrong.

EmailEmail is a source of stress for me. I get too much of it, I’m expected to respond to it, and a lot of it is just noise.  I think a lot of people can relate.

Some of this is my own doing. I’ve subscribed to things and turned on notifications for different services. I should be able to fix these things on my own.

However, some of the problem is with other people. That’s not entirely fair — It’s more of a collective problem. We can be pretty cruel to each other over email, not in what we say, but in the way we use it.

In the snail mail days, it took — relatively speaking — a lot of effort to write a letter, package it up with a stamp, and send it. Because it took more effort and time, people were more thoughtful about the message. More recipients meant spending more time and money, so people thought more about who needed to get the message too. However, people paid more careful attention to a letter when it arrived because they could be reasonably assured that the sender had to put some effort into getting it to them.

You can see where I’m going with this. Email is easy, fast, and free. That’s not bad, but it makes it much easier for us to abuse email. We spend less time thinking about what we’re writing because we can always send another message. We send to more people than necessary, just in case. And we value the messages in our inbox less because we know other people are doing the same things.

Email isn’t evil. Many of us are just using it in ways that frustrate each other (and our productivity). One thing we could do to improve is make sure we’re not using email when another tool (or method) would work a lot better.

A Few Ideas

  • Let’s stop using email as an instant messaging tool. If your emails with someone start looking like a series of texts, it’s probably time to switch to another tool or give the person a call.
  • Let’s stop using email as a broadcast tool. We have lots of other platforms (like online calendars, websites, and blogs) where we can post information meant for a large audience. Let’s use those instead.
  • Let’s stop using email as a task management tool. It’s easy to pass jobs and ideas around over email just to get them “off our plate.” There are other ways to delegate jobs and share details about tasks though. (One tool I’ve used is Basecamp but there are others.)

What’s left? Hopefully that would leave more room in our inboxes for thoughtful, private messages that are more valuable and worthy of our attention.

Different people use email in different ways. I think we need to try to use the right tools at the right time though, instead of abusing each other’s inboxes (and brains) for the sake of convenience. What do you think?

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