Email Overload Fixed (Again)

Email overload

The main problem apparently faced by all of us is that we’re swamped under a daily barrage of emails. Hundreds of emails flood our inboxes each morning, allegedly leaving us unable to cope with our workload, and (shudder!) forcing us to skip our morning coffee break to catch up.

Personally, I’ve never really suffered from the “email overload” problem. Perhaps I’m just not important enough. Other people seem to get cc’d in on progress reports for lots of different projects that they’re only vaguely connected with. And it would seem that there are many other workers out there who are similarly swamped by their daily deluge.

Gabor Cselle has an excellent summing-up of some recent research in email productivity and organization. The central theme among all the research efforts presented is that people tend to organize their working lives around their inbox. Therefore (the thinking goes), wouldn’t it make more sense if your email client took a more active role in organizing your ongoing tasks?

So we end up with “task-based emails” (or [gak!] “thrasks”), courtesy of PARC’s TaskMaster email tool. The idea behind TaskMaster is that you spend time organizing the emails in your “in-torrent” into personal tasks: upcoming Sunday League soccer match, product deadline, walking the dog… whatever tasks happen to be urgent in your life at the time.

Of course, the problem with this approach is… it’s aimed at people who are already swamped, but it’s asking those people to spend extra time organizing their emails. Ergo, it’ll never catch on, no matter how much it “makes sense” in PARC’s research labs; or how much their usability guinea pigs assure them that they think it’s a great idea.

The reason that Outlook’s traditional “big monolithic inbox” model has prevailed is that it’s intuitive. It works how people expect. Users are comfortable with this. As soon as the email client starts pretending it’s something it isn’t (like a task scheduler), it becomes counter-intuitive. People just won’t “get it”, no matter how clever or thoughtful the research that went into it.

Perhaps the real issue with these well-intentioned research efforts is that they don’t totally go the distance. You feel as if the lightbulb has almost slammed on, but it’s still flickering uncertainly over their heads. They’ve had their “Eureka! moment”, that your email client is trying to be a task scheduler/calendar tool. But then they blew it by saying: “So let’s create an email client that’s more like a task scheduler/calendar”. Perhaps instead they should be saying: “Let’s start with a calendar or task scheduler and give it email capabilities.”

To be honest, I really thought that the “email swamp” problem had been fixed years ago anyway, with improved search capability from the likes of LookOut (since bought up by Microsoft who then “disappeared” it into MSN Sandbox; although you can still download an ageing final version). The premise behind LookOut was that if you could search your inbox instantly, using an easy/powerful Google-style search tool, then you wouldn’t have to spend time organizing your constantly expanding, entropic universe of emails.

Another quick & easy solution, if you’re swamped under hundreds of emails each day, is simply to politely ask all those people to just stop emailing you, unless it’s really, really important! You could even ask them via email.

About the Author

Matt Stephens is a senior architect, programmer and project leader based in Central London. He co-wrote Agile Development with ICONIX Process, Extreme Programming Refactored, and Use Case Driven Object Modeling with UML - Theory and Practice.