This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2013-02-23 at 12:16 p.m.
The permanent URL for this article is:
Include images: Off

It’s Not Email That’s Broken, It’s You

by Joe Kissell

I know this is going to foment controversy, but screw it. I’m tired of reading about how email is fundamentally flawed and about all the clever new ways to “fix” or “reinvent” it. Email isn’t broken! Email is great. I love email; it’s my favorite way to communicate. Some email apps, servers, and protocols are better than others, but honestly, it would be OK with me if email stayed as is forever. If your relationship with email is unsatisfactory, email isn’t the problem. It’s you.

Now, I assume that by this point, many people have already stopped reading and started commenting about how wrong I am. That’s great; those of us who are sticking around for the rest of the article can safely ignore all those comments and have a polite and friendly (if one-sided) conversation.

I’ve been thinking about the whole alleged email problem in recent weeks largely due to the hype surrounding the new Mailbox [1] app for iPhone (see “Mailbox for iPhone Eases Email Triage but Lacks Key Features [2],” 22 February 2013), which purports to finally “put email in its place.” In the midst of the Mailbox frenzy, Maria Popova, of the highly regarded Brain Pickings [3] blog, stated on Twitter [4] that she was declaring email bankruptcy [5] — summarily deleting 7,487 unread email messages from her inbox because she knew she could never get to them all. All this, in turn, reminded me of an influential blog post by my friend Tantek Çelik, who declared in 2008 that Email is Efail [6].

I could give lots more examples, but it’s clear that a great many people are completely overwhelmed by email. That’s a problem, for sure, and it needs to be solved. What bothers me is when people blame the medium. The world’s obesity problem isn’t the fault of food, and the world’s debt problem isn’t the fault of money. Your email problems aren’t the fault of email as a communications system, and they’re probably not even the fault of the tools you’re using. It’s easy to pick on email because it won’t fight back. But the real problem for most people who feel email is out of control is that they haven’t taken responsibility for figuring out why the problem exists for them and how to change their habits to address it.

Email is not unique in this regard; the same could be said of Twitter overload or Facebook overload, for example. But at least in the case of social networking services, you get to decide who you receive messages from, and there’s no technological barrier (even if there is a psychological one) to unfollowing someone on Twitter or unfriending someone on Facebook. With email, the solutions are less obvious and the stakes are higher.

Don’t misunderstand; I wouldn’t presume to say, “Why don’t you just grow up and deal with your problem?” as though you’re merely being too lazy to implement some obvious and foolproof fix. Changing email habits is hard, like changing eating habits. How many people do you know who have tried one diet after another — with the very best intentions and perhaps even encouraging results — only to find that after months or years, they slip back into their old ways? Email overload is not a trivial thing to deal with. But people have successfully and definitively dealt with it, and you can too. Before you can do that, however, you have to accept that you alone have the responsibility to make email work for you. If you’re waiting for the right app or service to come along and magically fix it for you, you’re going to have a long wait.

Let’s go back to the Mailbox app I mentioned earlier. I tried it, and I hated it. It is, for me, utterly unusable. I could write many paragraphs about how awful I think its overall approach is and how ineffective its particular implementations are. But — and again, I’m assuming we just lost a bunch more people who have already headed for the comments — none of that matters. If you like Mailbox and it makes your email experience better, more power to you. What works for one person may not work for everyone. We all have to find our own paths to email sanity.

The system I’ve used for years works perfectly — for me. My inbox rarely has more than a handful of messages in it, and it’s usually empty when I go to bed. I don’t feel anxious or overwhelmed by my email, even though I receive a vast number of messages every day. Several years ago, I sat down and thought about the kinds of messages I receive and what I need to do in order to dispose of them quickly and efficiently. Based on that, I came up with a method I’m comfortable with. (You can read about a somewhat generic version of my system in my Macworld series “Empty Your Inbox [7].”)

Adam Engst developed his own way of interacting with email, which he documented in the four-part series “Zen and the Art of Gmail [8].” His approach (see the second article in the series for details) is as different from mine as can be — I’m certain that neither one of us could follow the other’s system for a day without driving ourselves utterly batty. As tempted as I may be to say his way is “wrong” and mine is “right,” they’re actually both right, because they suit our respective personalities. We’ve each identified what causes us stress, what we’re willing to pay attention to, and what we tend to ignore — and we’ve adopted systems that work with, rather than against, our proclivities. There are other approaches, too, including Merlin Mann’s famous Inbox Zero [9] and innumerable variations thereof, such as Keith Rarick’s Gmail version [10], which Maria Popova is now trying to follow.

So, even though I’m extremely fond of my own system, and even though I have strong feelings about some common habits (I truly can’t bear the idea of using one’s inbox as a to do list), I’m not trying to prescribe a particular approach to email. What I am trying to say is that you probably don’t receive more email than Adam Engst, Merlin Mann, or I do, and if we can get to the point where we feel email is under control, so can you. If you find that one of our systems works “out of the box,” that’s fantastic; go for it! If you need to adapt a system to your own needs or invent something entirely new, that’s also fine. But it’s going to require effort. You have to take a few hours of your life to analyze the ways you use email and determine what parts of your approach aren’t working, and then adjust some of your behaviors.

You may find it helpful to think about the metaphors we use when talking about email as if they were literal. Would you ever consider declaring postal mail bankruptcy — tossing out all the hundreds of envelopes that appeared in your physical mailbox over a period of months without even a glance? Would you allow envelopes to accumulate in a physical inbox on your desk until the pile reached the ceiling? I’m guessing no to both; somehow, nearly everyone finds some way to cope with mail when it arrives in physical form, even though there may be a lot of it, because some of it is important and there could be dire consequences to ignoring those past-due utility bills. But “coping” might include taking your name off of mailing lists, hiring an assistant, or taking other more drastic measures. Do the ways you’ve dealt with paper mail suggest ideas for dealing with email?

Learning to cope with email may involve things that feel painful, such as:

Perhaps you’ll have to do all these things, or none of them. That’s not for me to say. You even get to decide what your actual goal is. Maybe having an empty inbox is irrelevant to you and it’s not a good measure of whether you’re in control of your email. But in any case, if your current approach isn’t working for you, the one thing you mustn’t do is shift the blame to email as a medium or to an imperfect email app.

If email is the problem, you alone are the solution.