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.


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