Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

How Are You Using Email?

by Andre · 13 Comments

Mail Jeff Atwood recently had an interesting post questioning the value of email as a medium, echoing similar sentiments by Merlin Mann and Tantek Çelik. All of them, not to mention other A-list bloggers, seem to share the belief that an email client’s ability to collect messages indefinitely outstrips the user’s ability to attend to them.

I’ve always been skeptical about how these bloggers use email, probably because I’m not important enough to get that much. Using email has never been the cornerstone of my job description. Recently I was sick with an inner ear infection, and after five days of not opening my email (I never open my email unless I’m absolutely sure I’ll process it to zero), there were less than 400 messages in my inbox. In my last job, where I did get a lot of email and processed it at least hourly, I still thought that claims of massive email backlog were exaggerated — until I saw my co-workers’ inboxes. But rock stars in any domain, like Merlin or Jeff, have popularity issues that would persist regardless of the medium.

Less is more

Tantek prefers IM and Twitter messages to email.

I’m probably responding to less than 1 in 10 emails that are sent directly to me, and even fewer that were sent to a set of people or a list. The usability of email for me has deteriorated so much that I exclaimed on Twitter: EMAIL shall henceforth be known as EFAIL.

Tantek believes, if I understand him correctly, that email tends to be overwritten because senders try to batch too much information in each message to reduce the need to send more messages. That saves time for the sender, but demands more of the receiver.

I agree, but we all have different ideas on how to use email. I think there are two types of senders: those who treat an email like a letter, and those who treat it like a postcard. I’m squarely in the postcard camp, preferring one thought or request per message. Imagine going to your mailbox and getting 80 letters to read each day.

But aren’t short emails cold? I don’t think so. I think cold is cold. A gregarious person sending a short email can infuse more warmth in two sentences than a curmudgeon can in two pages. As I’ve written before, I believe that any human expression is like a hologram — a fragment contains the integrity of the whole. A polite email is one that  doesn’t wear out its welcome with excess verbiage.

My two favorite media are SMS and Twitter. As a writer, I have a perverse fascination with trying to pack as much content as possible into a 140 or 160 characters. They’re like haiku for the 21st Century. IM, to paraphrase Robert Frost, is like playing tennis without a net.

What’s your relationship with email?

I happen to think that most of the discourse on email overload is, well, loaded. The discussion tends to be monopolized by victims of their own success. What about those of you in the trenches?

  • Are you getting too much volume?
  • How many times do you genuinely need to check email each day?
  • Do you process your inbox to zero, or chip away at it incrementally?
  • Do you prefer letter-length or postcard-length email?
  • Is there a better medium for workplace communication (IM, phone, wikis)?
  • Which medium, if any, would you like to get rid of?

(Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography)

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  • DuffNo Gravatar // Dec 5, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I find that I’m better about processing my email to 0 when I get more daily volume. Necessity is the mother of invention….

    I prefer postcard length for business, with one idea per email. But for certain social purposes, longer email conversations can work well.

    I have to admit, I hate instant messaging. I can’t tell if someone is paying attention to me, when the conversation is over, and don’t like continuous interruption.

    I personally have recently been fond of video chat, and wish more people used it to communicate.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 5, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    But for certain social purposes, longer email conversations can work well.

    For establishing a relationship, longer emails are necessary providing enough relevant detail. For longer conversations, I prefer picking up the phone if the option exists.

    I have to admit, I hate instant messaging. I can’t tell if someone is paying attention to me, when the conversation is over, and don’t like continuous interruption.

    I am another IM hater, for the same reasons. It’s frustrating to see “Jack is typing . . .”, then see that caption disappear, then see it reappear, etc. You never know when the conversation is finished.

    I personally have recently been fond of video chat, and wish more people used it to communicate.

    I’d prefer video chat. I think most people treat IM as a multitasking activity, and video would force them to pay attention; when the reality is that it fragments their attention (he said, presumptuously).

  • DuffNo Gravatar // Dec 5, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    I also prefer the phone for 1-on-1 conversations. I’ve sometimes enjoyed email conversations too, for their own merits, although they often get out of hand.

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Dec 5, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    Glad you’re feeling better.

    I process to zero, check email twice a day, and would like to get rid of telephones.

  • EMMNo Gravatar // Dec 6, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Refuse to use IM or twitter or anything else that can interrupt my thoughts. Email is ideal for tracking stuff. Robust filtering into buckets of read laters vs read and respond nows (at a time of my own choosing) are great. And my daily e-mail load is somewhere between 400-500 messages and more when some of the lists I read get busy.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 6, 2008 at 11:49 am

    @Vered: Thanks. I’m not 100%, but at least functional.

    @EMM: I use Twitterfox for my Twitter client, but disable the automatic notification, so it doesn’t have the disruptive aspect of IM. Otherwise I’d do without Twitter.

  • @TheGirlPieNo Gravatar // Dec 15, 2008 at 10:37 am

    I agree that most divide email users into those two camps, postcard or letter. I suspect it has to do with one’s age and when they started emailing. (I blame my own letter style in the earliest years of email for business on my advanced age, business training, and lack of volume in those days.)
    HOWEVER — it’s almost ’09 and I have an issue that no one seems to address as they beg/guide for short emails. 99% of my clients find me via my site and use me via email. A potential client takes me up on a web offer, I reply and deliver via email = long. I use this offer/results to deliver benefits to them, hear their needs, engage in conversation.
    Or, they ask how my service works; I could just use one line to direct them back to my site where they found my email address (which seems rude) but instead I paste in boiler-plate and quickly personalize and tailor it to their request = LONG.
    Or, they’ve hired me and we’ve had a phoner, and I email a RECAP because they didn’t listen, didn’t’ take notes well, didn’t understand, etc. And I want a paper trail for all of it (my poor old 2MB+ laden Outlook Express sorts my clients and everything else beautifully for filing) for legal, admin, and personalize follow-up reasons. But that = LONG EMAIL.
    Do you see a way around it? With so many using their phones to read email, I always do a “BRIEF” in 1 or 2 lines up top, but putting the text into an attachment means they’d see it maybe a day or two later (if it doesn’t get bounced as some corp. email servers do.)
    Any thoughts on this postcard+letter issue? (Yes, I use twitter but only in this persona; my real consulting business has been successful for 10+ years and does not.)
    THANKS for any feedback on how to satisfy both the short-wanters and the long-needs!

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 15, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    @TheGirlPie: I think readers define “long” by how many thoughts or ideas are expressed in an email, not how many words are in it. That’s why I believe it’s a good idea to limit any email to a single call to action. Since I don’t know the details of your operation or your standard email text, I’ll have to make assumptions. I would use my first email to the prospect strictly as a personalized introduction, then, as you suggested, link to a landing page with your terms; but also encourage them to contact me by phone or email if they have any questions.

    That does mean that you’ll have more exchanges than you would if you loaded your initial email with more information. It’s tempting to amortize several short emails with one long one, but ultimately you want more conversions, not just more inquiries, so the extra effort pays for itself as more potential clients actually read what you’ve written. The object is to avoid writing defensively, trying to answer every question a potential client might have in a single email; otherwise you’ll wind up with a very efficient email that goes unread.

    Precisely because of the Blackberry issue, I would avoid limiting any important text to an attachment. Paste the flat text in the body of the email, but indicate beforehand that the text that follows is also included in the attachment you’ve provided. That way the recipients will be tempted to at least scan the body for relevance.

  • BHASKAR G NNo Gravatar // Dec 28, 2008 at 12:32 am

    After opening the email, I LABEL it before opening the next. After reading all emails, which are already LABELled, I ARCHIVE them. This leaves my INBOX clean and empty, and does not frighten me next day when I open it.
    We send too many emails because they are free. How many are willing to pay to send? I think if we voluntarily set aside a unit of currency (in India – a Rupee) for every email sent, then we will have a sizeable saving and also less emails.


  • Toam DwanNo Gravatar // Jul 29, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Me too, I refuse to use IM or twitter or anything else that can interrupt my thoughts. I works great.

  • EthanNo Gravatar // Sep 6, 2010 at 10:44 am

    I find myself checking my email probably 7 to 10 times throughout my 8 hour day. Most of it is junk and i don’t even bother opening it up, but i guess i can’t stand to have email in my inbox. Call it OCD, call it i don’t know what…but i check mine often and can’t stand seeing a bold indox

  • John FrancisNo Gravatar // Feb 2, 2011 at 9:48 am

    I never watch closely in my mail i only check what is important to me, other instant delete or at spam.

  • Lee DuvalllNo Gravatar // Feb 2, 2011 at 10:23 am

    everytime i think at email i have a headacke , i know that i subscribed to a few newsletters and now i have like 1k emails each day :(.