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Email is Killing Us

In 2007, Merlin Mann penned a series of articles focused on effectively managing email. His now famous Google Tech Talk video Inbox Zero was released the same year.

In 2009 (the first year statistics are available), the average business user sent or received an average of 74 emails per day. In 2015, that number grew 64% to 122 emails per day.

Most people don’t need a survey to confirm that the tyranny of email has gotten worse.

2007 also saw the release of the first iPhone signaling the beginning of widespread adoption that now has a smartphone in the hands of 2/3 of Americans.

Let’s not forget to mention that along the way we’ve added social media channels (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, snapchat, etc.) as well as entirely new categories of communication (Slack, Trello.)

A survey earlier this year indicated US Workers spent a total of 6.3 hours each day checking and responding to personal and work email.

What’s causing the problem?

Too many communication options. As pathways for communication have proliferated, individuals choose the communication path based on personal preference or convenience. There is no standard for ‘best use.’ Similarly, every person sets his or her own expectation for responsiveness. For some, email might languish for days while others expect immediate response

Communication is a means to an end. Reading an email message does not represent valuable work output. Email consumes time but does not in and of itself accomplish anything meaningful. You don’t get credit in your performance review for the number of emails sent or received that year yet this activity consumes more time than we spend producing anything of actual value.

An obsession with over-communication. What portion of the communication that crosses our path do we actually need to see? Some companies practice a form of ‘CC insanity.’ Whether its senders receive little agreed upon distinction between ‘action required’ and For Your Information result in CC Insanity

The nature of email has changed. Email was once a means of direct communication between individuals. Messages sent received a response. Email now behaves like a ‘stream’ medium (think: Twitter.) Today we scan through a never-ending stream of messages (primarily on a 3.5” mobile device screen.) In just few seconds we decide to delete (swipe left), act now (click on), or deal with later (keep scrolling.) The last category ‘deal with later’ consumes our nights and weekends and where your messages die a long slow death.

Email writing skills have not adapted. Open rates for external emails rarely exceed 20%. Internal emails perform more favorably but still get read less than half the time. Online marketers obsess about subject lines and message formatting, elements that dramatically affect open and read rates. Contrast that with the fact that we send most messages with little concern for the subject line that will determine if your message will even be opened and no consideration for how your reply to a reply of a conversation thread will show up on a mobile device.

Is there a solution?

Of course there is… and it’s a simple fix.

Implementing a uniform set of rules and expectations for communication creation and production would bring sanity back for everyone.

As individuals, we could also choose to ‘get off the merry-go-round.’ I recently saw an ‘auto-responder’ come through with the following:

“Due to a high workload and essential focus on [Business Unit], I’m checking email much less frequently. If you are a part of [Business Unit], I should be available on Slack. If it’s truly urgent, please call my cell phone.”

Sadly, neither of these scenarios is likely to happen anytime soon.

11 years after the release of Merlin’s groundbreaking approach to email, we still manage our inbox the same way we did a decade ago. A simple solution is in plain sight yet his video has less than 400,000 views.

As individuals, we fall victim to the ‘tyranny of the urgent.’ Our fear of missing out, our fear of not being heard, and our fear of looking bad keep us chained to the hamster wheel.

Perhaps the situation will get continue to degrade to the point that someday we will choose a different approach.

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