Email overload has become a hot topic lately. An average person now gets over 100 emails per day, and an average corporate employee over 200. Companies are looking for ways to replace email or just turn it off.
Google counted 24,000 mentions of “email overload” last year. Just within the last week there were 2,000. At this runrate, we should see over 100,000 mentions in the coming year – that’s a 5x growth in “email overload” buzz. (By the same methodology, mentions of “solar power” should decrease 3x next year).
Paul Graham, Pando Daily, and many others suggest email should be reinvented. They claim that the simple one-to-one communication protocol it was designed to be is no longer effective. MG Siegler, Nick Bilton and even some companies suggest quitting email entirely.
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But they are all wrong. Email overload is not the problem. It’s the outcome of a much larger problem — there simply is more work, requiring communication with more people, faster.
According to Dawna Ballard, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at UT Austin, “The feedback loops in organizational communication are becoming more compressed, leading to an increase in the quantity of work, which in turn requires faster communication with a greater number of people in the same time frame as before.”
Email happens to be at the unfortunate intersection of these three phenomena — more work, more contacts, and faster communication — happening simultaneously. Whatever communication protocol will come next, it will eventually run into the same problem – more and more information to be processed in 24 hours. According to Andrew McAffee, whatever solution replaces email, it would have to be 10x better than email. He argues that people are typically so change-averse that they overvalue current solutions by 3x and undervalue proposed substitutes by 3x (“The 9x Email Problem”). A successful email killer would have to be not just better, but 10x better to overcome this resistance.
I’ll go a step further and argue that email is not only unlikely to get disrupted, but it also doesn’t need to be. Email is not a product, it’s a protocol that lets you send and receive information. It’s actually quite good at that. Think of email as the four wheels that get you around – they supported the Model T just as well as they support Tesla. The part that needs innovation is what’s on top of those four wheels — it’s how you process and act on information you receive.
While an idea of the “perfect email experience” is appealing to Fred Wilson et al, it’s as realistic as the “perfect car”. Everybody has different preferences and workflows for dealing with information (much like some people prefer trucks to sports cars) and lots of startups are working on solving for those use cases. Here are the key pain points outlined by email’s critics, followed by existing solutions to those problems [disclosure: I work at one of these solutions companies — SaneBox]:
- Inbox needs to become an actionable to-do list (Paul Graham’s chief complaint): ActiveInbox, MailPilot
- No ability to automatically prioritize signal vs. noise: SaneBox, AwayFind
- Different types of emails should be viewed in different context (work, family, newsletters, etc): OtherInbox, ZeroMail
- No easy way to send templated emails: YesWare, Tout, TextExpander
- No easy way to schedule meetings: Boomerang, ActiveInbox
- No easy way to manage contacts: Rapportive, WriteThat.Name, Contactually
These are just some of the solutions. A much more complete view of the email ecosystem is here. Combining them into one application may or may not work, but already anyone (well, mainly Gmail users) can pick and choose the right mix of solutions for their personal workflow.
If I’m wrong, and email is replaced by another communication protocol (similar to Asana or Yammer?) it will continue to be ruled by the same principle of scarcity of time. It’s up to each of us to become a more efficient communicator.
The key principle of dealing with the constantly growing volume of communication is the same as with everything else in our world of limited resources – prioritization. We set priorities in work, personal life, finances. The same lens needs to be applied to email. Not all messages are created equal. Some need to be read and responded to right away. Some can wait until you’re done with important priorities. Others should be archived or deleted in bulk. Keep in mind that several years from now you will get more email, so the bar for emails that deserve your full attention will need to be raised.
Dmitri Leonov is VP of Growth at email-management service SaneBox. Prior to SaneBox, he founded social networking app Wanto and spent several years at Overture (acquired by Yahoo) in a number of sales strategy and business development roles.
[Top image credit: pio3/Shutterstock]