Blog Post

5 Tips to Keep the Cruft Out of Your Inbox

It seems there are a lot of people bringing back the familiar cry that “Email is dead” … mostly pointing to the rise of social networks and IM among the younger generation (see also: is email dead?). Many of those who are joyfully proclaiming the death of email (and again, this is not a new proclamation) are those whose email inboxes are full of thousands of messages. I can see why some would prefer the death of email and the rise of other modes of communication such as IM, social networks, texting, etc. — in many cases email is extraneous and overburdening.

The useful emails are great, but how do you deal with all the rest?

Here are 5 suggestions:

1. Message boards. Whenever an email is sent to a large group of people, it’s a waste of those people’s time. A better format for keeping people up-to-date on any topic would be a message board or forum or some other collaborative method of posting information to a large group. Within a company, for example, an announcement should be posted on the company’s online bulletin board. Within a working group, form a collaborative whiteboard. Within a family, have a family message board. This will eliminate a lot of email for a lot of people.

2. IM. One of Gmail’s (many) great innovations is its “Reply by chat” feature on each email … if the person is online, it can often be much better to resolve an issue immediately through IM. See How Instant Messaging Can Be More Productive. This feature can eliminate a lot of back-and-forth emails.

3. Blogs. A much better way to keep a large group informed about things than email. Similar to message boards but for many purposes, it’s just a better format. Microblogging and tumblelogs would also be good solutions for some purposes. Consider the joke emails that my relatives like to send me (they’re all on my kill file, btw) … couldn’t they have a tumblelog with all their favorite jokes and joke pictures and chain-mail prayers and joke videos on there instead? Then, if I’m interested, I can subscribe to their joke tumblelog’s feed or check it every now and then.

4. Instant-action emails. This is the real future of email, but I don’t know when it’ll happen. Here’s the rub: in many cases, an email is a request for action on your part. Unfortunately, it often takes many steps to complete that request … you might have to open a new web page, look for some info, click on a few buttons, etc … or you might have to open a new program, or go looking in a folder for something to email, or call someone, etc. And when it takes so many steps to complete a request in an email, often the email will just sit there for awhile, because you don’t have time to go do all the things required.

Imagine instead: a request comes into your email inbox, you read the request, decide to take the action … and with one click, you complete the requested action! Don’t you think that would be much easier? Say, for example, the person was requesting a file. At the bottom of your email, there appeared a button that said, “Send requested file.” You click on the button, and it’s sent! At the most, you might have to browse a dialog box to find the file.

Gmail already has a feature like this, where you can add an event in an email to Google Calendar. What I’m proposing Instant Action Emails ™ — would be to expand this concept.

It’s done in other services. For example, if I get a notice from the LinkedIn network (usually a request to add someone to my network, or a request to forward something), I can approve the request or take the action with one click.

So why can’t it be done with email? A smart email program will learn to recognize the most common requests and allow you to take the action with one click.

This will allow us to clear our inboxes much easier, and get stuff done faster.

5. RSS or social networks. A better way to keep up with what your friends are doing, or your colleagues’ latest action, is by adding them to your social network. This is a rapidly expanding field, of course, and we’ll be seeing new developments here in the next few years, but many functions of emails will be replaced by social networks or some version of the RSS feed.

So where does that leave email? Where it’s best: thoughtful correspondence, useful work, a quick note, sending information to one person, etc. If we can remove the extraneous stuff from email with these other modes of communication, email will remain vital and important.

8 Responses to “5 Tips to Keep the Cruft Out of Your Inbox”

  1. Tracey: You hit the nail on the head and this is probably the only barrier to be overcome.

    Spammers are after money and sources of money. I think that spoofing an action is possible but there are a couple of trust and routine checks inbuilt into instant-actions.

    – Routine, repeated tasks
    – Between known participants
    – Low value, low profile targets

    I have yet to see a “moderate this comment” or “approve this user” spam but these are the instant-action emails I currently receive.

    The art of implementation is to deliver expected functionality over a timeframe that even the most hardcore boomer-slug-bureaucrat can handle.

    It would be if the same people used more push rss stuff or a limited-social/commercial-network approach and then the trust layer would move out of email.

    Let the decrufting begin.

  2. It seems my family and friends communicate a lot more on Facebook than they ever have by email, but they also send chain letters via Facebook as well, it seems that no matter what the medium, it is always going to get killed by people continuing to spread chain letters. Posting them on their blogs – people already do that, which is why I’ve stopped reading some friends’ blogs at least some of the time, and it’s annoying when chain letters show up in searches on keywords because so many people posted the same dang joke fwd to their blog.

  3. Leo, IM and Social Networks are good if your friends frequently login. I still find email to be my biggest source of communication. Your article on 5 Inbox Hacks was a life saver for me. Also, Judi wrote an earlier article proposing the adoption of a “no email day”. This can be useful, but for me I have found setting specific times of the day (mid-morning and mid-afternoon) to process email much better.

    BTW- congrats on the book! Good reviews on LifeHack.

    -eb (a.k.a. WeirdGuy)

  4. Message Boards only save time if you’re not interested in >95% of the messages. Otherwise, the constant clicking around to follow threads is a worse drag on your time than e-mail ever could be. Plus, you now have more than one inbox.

    Social networks, for good reasons, send you e-mails on important updates. Again, it’s the one inbox principle.

    On the fence about IM. Might work for distributed groups.

  5. I’ve found the best way to avoid a mailbox bogged down with spam is to have two email addresses. One is the one you use whenever signing for anything on random websites that are probably going to send you spam. The other I use for my friends or important sites like my bank. That way I know that I can log into my real email without worry about who’s actually sending me what.

  6. The instant-action email would be great in a perfect world, but spammers and hackers already spoof email so well, I never click on any buttons or links in them. For example, even if I’m 99% sure a message is from my bank, I go directly to the bank’s website and perform the action so that I control the interaction and reduce the chance of being compromised.

  7. Folks with too many emails just haven’t managed email well. Use good spam filters, and give out temporary and/or unique addresses that can be turned off if they become a problem. Don’t sign up for too much crap, and keep your addresses off of the public internet.

    For closed groups, bulletin boards and social networks are fine, but options for email and/or RSS delivery are essential.

    IM integration and instant-action emails are truly useful constructs.