E-mail overload

Is there any way to get a grip on the flood of e-mail?

1 November 2010

In May, respected US venture capitalist Fred Wilson, principal at Union Square Ventures, got the attention of the tech industry with a blog post entitled E-mail bankruptcy.

In it, he recalled a Sunday night spent trying to regain control of his inbox. It took him three hours to whittle down 1 200 unread non-spam e-mails to 800. Over the preceding few weeks, that number had grown from “a manageable hundred to an unmanageable thousand”.

“This happens to me fairly regularly,” continued Wilson.

Michael Arrington, founder of technology blog Techcrunch, was ahead of the curve in 2008, when he titled a post 2 433 Unread E-mails Is An Opportunity For An Entrepreneur.

“I routinely declare e-mail bankruptcy and simply delete my entire inbox. But even so, I currently have 2 433 unread e-mails in my inbox. Plus another 721 in my Facebook inbox. And about 30 Skype message windows open with unanswered messages,” Arrington wrote.

We’ve all been there.

As I write this, I have around 1 500 ‘flagged’ unread non-spam e-mails in my work mailbox. That figure is closer to 3 000 in my private mailbox. Thankfully, most of those are newsletters.

An August online survey conducted by e-mail company Xobni, which allows users to manage and search e-mail and contacts in Outlook and on the BlackBerry, declared the death of the typical nine-to-five workday.

“Two out of three Americans (72 percent) and Brits (68 percent) who check their e-mail outside of regular business hours do so while on vacation, when they are taking time off, on a weekend and/or on another non-work day.”

Xobni says 27 percent of users check e-mail outside of regular working hours because they feel it
is expected.

Also, one in five professionals who check their e-mail outside of work hours do so before getting out of bed in the morning, or in bed before falling asleep at night.

Gartner research puts the rate of growth of e-mail volumes in organisations at more than 30 percent annually. Business research outfit Basex estimated, in 2007, that the broader ‘information overload’ was a $650-billion drag on the US economy.

But how do we deal with this constant avalanche of e-mail?

Outsource it

Of course, there are the stories of C-level executives who don’t read their own e-mail. Instead, their personal assistants handle all e-mails and print out (yes, print!) the important ones for follow-up. A director at a JSE-listed corporation manages his e-mail in this way. Responses are drafted by hand, and these are then typed up and sent by his PA.

He’s surely not the only one.

On the opposite end are the middle-aged execs who manage their lives on BlackBerry devices or other smartphones, and consume tailored news through a complex combination of Google News alerts.

Some manage their e-mail with folders, with messages automatically sorted into dozens of the things. Anything over and above that which arrives in the inbox is either deleted, or sorted immediately.

Other people use flags that prioritise mail accordingly. Some just allow their inboxes to build into a mountain and try to deal with the thousands of mails as best possible.

And others use the ‘Inbox Zero’ approach. In a series of articles (which have recently been published as a book), Merlin Mann detailed strategies for taking an ‘e-mail inbox from overstuffed to zero’ and then keeping it that way.

His solution: create what he calls an e-mail DMZ: “Open your e-mail program and create a new folder called ‘DMZ’. Go to your e-mail inbox and ‘Select All’. You might alternatively choose all e-mail older than n days. Drag those e-mails from your inbox into the DMZ folder. Go, and sin no more.”

Mann’s philosophy is ruthless: “Just remember that every e-mail you read, re-read, and re-re-re-re-re-read as it sits in that big dumb pile is actually incurring mental debt on your behalf. The interest you pay on e-mail you’re reluctant to deal with is compounded every day and, in all likelihood, it’s what’s led you to feeling like such a useless slacker today.”

Fred Wilson’s method is similar to Mann’s DMZ idea. He keeps a list of about 30 people who he e-mails regularly. Once he’s made sure he’s read and answered all e-mails from his 30 most important e-mail relationships, he ‘selects all’ and hits Archive.

Reducing the amount of e-mail, extracting useful information and finding more efficient ways to manage it are subjects that are being taken earnestly, with serious research and development budgets dedicated to solving the problem.

Hilary Mason, lead scientist at URL shortening startup, caused a stir during a November 2009 presentation at an intimate industry conference in New York (IgniteNYC).

In her talk ‘How to Replace Yourself with a Very Small Shell Script’, she unveiled a script she’d written, which overlays her Gmail inbox and manages mail.

Her script ensures that her inbox follows a series of rules to correctly prioritise which e-mails she needs to read first. Her philosophy is that e-mail should be sorted by importance, not time.

The mail classifier checks whether or not a sender has mailed her before. If they have, the message is pushed higher in the queue. If they correspond with her on a regular basis, the e-mail is moved even higher. But, in an interview with the New York Times, Mason says the subject line is the other major missing piece in the puzzle.

She also has an override where messages from some people are thrust right to the top of the list, regardless of the time of the mail or the message’s content. Mason says she “had no idea the talk would be shared beyond the couple hundred people in the audience or that it would be so popular!”

She plans to release the code, but highlights the fact that she needs to “finish a generic framework for people to train their own filters before I can publish that piece of the system.”

Google has brought a solution to this problem into the spotlight, with its rollout in August of ‘Priority Inbox’ to Gmail users.

Doug Aberdeen, Google software engineer, explains in a post: “Gmail has always been pretty good at filtering junk mail into the ‘spam’ folder … In addition to spam, people get a lot of mail that isn’t outright junk but isn’t very important… So we’ve evolved Gmail’s filter to address this problem and extended it to not only classify outright spam, but also to help users separate this ‘bologna’ from the important stuff.”

Gmail’s ‘Priority Inbox’ splits the user’s inbox into three discrete sections: important and unread, starred and everything else.

Because it relies on semantics, patterns and opening trends, the early results can be surprising. But as it learns which of your contacts is more important, the artificial intelligence really kicks in.

Sorting mail by priority is not without its own problems, though. All the important mails tend to pile up in the priority section. Google is no doubt working on ‘de-prioritising’ mail based on certain rules.

A number of power users have raised the lack of ‘Priority Inbox’ support for other mail clients. Google is working on adding support for marking messages for full integration.

Techcrunch’s Arrington reckons “the long-term answer to all of this isn’t that people need to try harder
to respond to communication requests. The long-term answer is that someone needs to create a new technology that allows us to enjoy our lives but not miss important messages.”

Wilson struggles along, declaring bankruptcy often: “I hate it but I cannot operate without it. I have gotten hundreds of suggestions on how to become more efficient with e-mail and I have adopted many of them. But the more efficient I get with e-mail, the more of it that comes in.”

As for my inbox, the unread message count now reads 1 586. Make that 1 592.