The problem with email is everyone else

There is no single cure for email overload and Inbox Zero doesn’t claim to perform miracles. At the end of the day it’s a system, and it’s nothing without your own personal input. It might work for you and it might not. It’s important to remember that productivity systems are subjective beasts and that can be their ultimate downfall or the reason for their success.

What works for you won’t necessarily work for me. And for that reason you can’t say wholeheartedly that Inbox Zero works or it doesn’t. That’s just like saying that having cornflakes for breakfast doesn’t work. It’s simply a matter of personal preference or taste.

I’ve always been critical about email ‘diets’, although I view more contemporary efforts by Luis and Geoff to eliminate email with great interest.

Years ago I recommended the following:

  • Where possible, eliminate the root cause of the problem. 
  • Take control of your own inbox by managing it appropriately. 
  • Lead by example and practice better e-mail etiquette and style.

At the root of this advice is that email is a communication tool that is often misappropriated as a collaboration tool. You can keep trying to fix your own inbox, but the problem is actually with everyone else using email.

The good news is that I hear more and more frequently how social business tools in the workplace do help to reduce email overload. We really have moved beyond marketing rhetoric.

I can even see it in my own work practices too – I use a combination of email (yes, its still there!), wiki, microblogging (enterprise microblogging and Twitter) and instant messaging. Of course, its the wiki and microblogging that make the critical difference, as they create a open plan workspace online where everyone can work out loud.

However, the root causes I identified originally still stand. Working out loud works best when:

  • Everyone is working out loud (or at least ‘in the room’). 
  • People know why and understand how to work out loud. 
  • Users are able to control how they consume the online open plan space.

Part of the reason for this is that its not simply about shifting communication that takes place in email to other channels. That would simply shift the location of the problem. Instead, we use different tools in the flow to deal with transient, situational and ambient communication and collaboration in different situations. See my Architected for Collaboration presentation for more on this.

Overall, this is a very different approach to the problem from the simplistic ‘occupational spam‘ mentality. We eliminate the root cause of email overload, not the individual messages.

On a strictly personal front, I’ve noticed that the vast majority of personal email I receive these days comes in the form of notifications from other public social tools, subscriptions and automatic notifications (like my bank). However, the dynamic of personal use is very different from the workplace. In the workplace, we have the advantage of being able to choose the commons spaces where we will work out loud (assuming you are proactive about it).