Brad Feld

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Why Do People Find Email So Difficult To Deal With?

Jun 15, 2008

I noticed two articles in the NY Times this morning that pressed my email theme button.  The first was actually from yesterday – Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made BeastThe second was In the E-Mail Relay, Not Every Handoff Is Smooth.

Both are interesting, but relatively light weight articles.  That’s not really a surprise since they are aimed at the mainstream public instead of Joe Techie.  There are a few fun things in Lost in E-Mail … such as the new and exciting "Gmail E-Mail Addict" feature that lets the user take a 15 minute break by hitting a button or a neat program called Rescue Time which tracks how much time you are spending in different applications (I used it for a few weeks until I got bored of seeing how much time I was spending on email.)  However, neither really gets at the core of the issue they are addressing, which is something approximating "how can human beings deal with the current onslaught of email?"

I find it more interesting to see what my "high performance / lead user friends" are struggling with.  I’m an inbox zero guy (I go to bed every night with no emails in my inbox – where "no emails" is an approximation for "less than 30 and nothing urgent.")  I don’t save things in folders for a future response (I think that’s equivalent to deleting them) but I do put things on my task list when I need to remember to respond (my task list is never longer than something I can clear with an hour of focused effort.)  I regularly check my email throughout the day, but I don’t let it interfere with me when I need to concentrate on something and I’ve trained myself not to look at my handheld until I’m truly bored in a meeting.  I rarely go to the bathroom in the middle of a meal out with Amy to sneak a quick look at my email.  As a result, I don’t struggle with email – it’s just an efficient (and integral) part of my work communication.

A set of my friends are really struggling with it.  I commonly hear the "I’m way behind on email" refrain.  Several of my friends have deep disdain for email, including one who basically equates it to "homework" (hey – I liked doing homework!)  Another friend decided to take the summer off from using email (while I was happy to hear from him when he called me to thank me for doing something, it was at an inconvenient time and I thought he must have needed something urgently when I saw his name pop up on my phone.) 

When I sit on an airplane next to someone doing email, I like to observe their pattern as I drift off to sleep (watching them helps me fall asleep faster.)  A remarkable number of people have a "hunt, click, read, and then don’t respond" approach to email where they read messages that they selectively choose to read but then don’t respond or delete, resulting in yet another "read" message clogging up their inbox.  These people clearly need a lesson in processing their email.

I’ve got a long list of additional examples, but you get the idea.  There is a deep sociological thing going on.  A decade ago email was lauded as the savior of business communication.  Today, it’s a giant pain in the ass for many people, although it’d be interesting to see how they’d cope without it.  The fact that it’s popping up in the weekend NY Times reinforces that the problem is continuing to build toward a tipping point, which reminds me that there is a big opportunity out there somewhere. 

BTW – can someone tell the NY Times that it’s ok to use "email" instead of "E-mail" – even Wikipedia says so.