The E-vils of E-mail

A Microsoft executive once had the greatest answer for what he does for a living: “Delete E-Mail”. It’s good to know that I am doing executive-level work. Now, let me preface this by saying I truly believe e-mail is a wonderful medium. It is still how I stay in touch with my closest friends. It is how I asked my wife out on our first date (I kid you not). It is how my dad stays in contact with relatives in India without expensive phone calls or slow postal mail. There’s something about e-mail that is just wonderful. It’s asynchronous (you answer when you are ready to answer), enables a well-thought out response, and allows for easy broadcast of messages so the information flies faster father. When Bill Gates wrote “Business @ The Speed of Thought”, a lot of the ideas were around how computers increased velocity of information and there’s no simpler way to recognize that power that than e-mail. Even my brother, the ultimate technophobe, has started to notice that there might be something to this e-mail thing.

But e-mail has had its challenges in the past few years. Hackers take advantage of the trusting nature of users to destroy PCs. Marketers try to sell you college diplomas, pharmaceuticals, and home loans (and much more), whether you are a target customer or now. The anti-virus and spam protection business is growing by leaps and bounds. At this point, the zero-cost ability to annoy the heck out of someone has surpassed the junk mail that the post office delivers to us on a regular basis. But I don’t have a huge problem with spam, per se. I have an old account that I have made the sacrificial lamb for all spam and my primary accounts are fairly spam-free (not perfect, but pretty darn good).

So I don’t have a problem with mail that I don’t want. What I do have a problem with is the volume of mail that I do want. My work Inbox has become my captor, dominating my time. I do everything I can to cut back on the sheer volume. I’ve pulled myself off several discussion aliases, set rules to route certain mails to certain folders, and often get rid of all trailing messages on a thread before I even start reading the mail. I’ve gotten a smart phone to try to triage mail while waiting on line at Starbucks or riding home on the bus. And yet, every night, I am still up until 11pm writing and answering e-mails (I rarely watch TV without a laptop out, hard at work on Outlook) and then I awake the next morning to handle a bunch before my morning run. Now, first off, let me say how much I love Outlook and it does help me with this problem. The fade-in notification has a delete button that I can hit before it even hits my Inbox if I know that it’s an extraneous message. In addition, the colored flags help me set urgency for Follow-up items to prioritize my Inbox. But still, I do everything I can to get the Inbox under 100 and yet if I am in meetings for an entire morning where I don’t take my laptop, it inevitably grows to 150-200 by the time I get back to my desk. I estimate that I get 150+ e-mails a day and I bet that’s average for Microsoft employee. It comes overnight, on the weekends, and every other time you can imagine. E-mail is a 24/7 entity. Some are tagged with FYI, others are “ACTION REQUIRED”. I feel like I get better and better in handling the triage, but at the end of the day, I still stink at triaging mail. Every time I think I’ve got a great system, I miss a key e-mail with an important request of me or some deadline that I needed to be aware of. People spend so much time worrying about the mail they don’t want that the lost sight of managing the e-mail they do need to care about. I’ve prided myself of not dropping the ball on commitments, but I find that it becomes harder to catch everything without spending hours reading mail after mail. And when I think about the hours spent on it, it’s kinda scary (I still can’t imagine what a workday was like for people 15 years ago).

So, the question is: is there a better way? Like I said earlier, I think the last version of Outlook has really helped, but it is skimming the surface. I honestly don’t know what the next version holds in store, but I hope they do something great. I also wonder if this isn’t a great opportunity for someone out there to make something that helps the triaging of e-mail. I love Lookout and its ability to find a mail quickly (the only thing worse than having the handle the incoming demand is trying to wade through the archives in search of something specific). Well, somebody has to come up with something. In the same manner that Google made the web a more effective medium, there is a killer app waiting for e-mail that will change everything. I just hope it is here soon!

{Audioslave – Audioslave}