I've been testing a product called SaneBox, which promises to save me from inbox insanity, and it's scary to see how much it's slimmed down my Gmail inbox. This got me thinking more broadly about the problem of email overload, and sent me looking for clues about how others deal with it.
SaneBox is often compared with the Priority Inbox, a Gmail enhancement Google introduced a couple of years ago (still offered, albeit buried in the user interface). SaneBox takes a similar approach to highlighting the most important messages and letting the rest wait until you have time for them. One way SaneBox improves on the concept is by connecting to your social media accounts--or, in one enterprise variation, to your Salesforce.com customer list--to identify your most important contacts and make sure their messages stand out.
In other words, the software tries to whittle down your inbox to just those messages that you must attend to as part of your business, or which promise to bring in new business.
Those messages that don't make the cut go into an @SaneLater folder where you can review them as time permits. SaneBox also sends you a daily digest of all the email that got sidelined, so you can fine tune the filtering of what belongs in your inbox. In addition to Gmail, SaneBox works with Microsoft Exchange and other systems that support the IMAP protocol (required to let the SaneBox agent organize your email folders).
[ Running the Red Queen's race? Facebook Overload: Just Getting Worse.]
"This stuff is not spam. It's meant for you, but it's just not important," explains SaneBox's Dmitri Leonov, whose business card reads "VP Growth." With his system, "your inbox is reserved for what deserves to interrupt the day," he says.
Mostly, the stuff SaneBox shuffles to the side consists of newsletters, commercial offers and notifications like "so-and-so is now following you on Twitter!" In my case, this includes a good number of newsletters I no longer care about but have just never gotten around to unsubscribing from and notifications that I'd probably choose to turn off if I made time to log into all the websites that are generating them and poke around their settings screens. Beyond that, SaneBox classified as unimportant a number of newsletters that I do still read occasionally, time permitting, as well as some pitches from public relations professionals that I might or might not care about.
Few of these messages were spam by my definition--Gmail had already filtered out the worst of that--but almost none were urgent. One exception: SaneBox misclassified a reminder about some expiring GoDaddy domain registrations, which could have caused me some grief if I had missed it. In principle, if I used SaneBox over a longer period of time, I'd be able to "train" the software to understand better what I think is important. Leonov says the software doesn't actually read the content of messages, getting all the information it needs from header fields (to, from, subject, etc.).
If nothing else, this exercise showed me just how out of control my inbox is. I mentioned that SaneBox sends a summary of messages it has filtered out. The summary is sorted by the name of the sender and, in my case, it only makes it partway through the B's before Google truncates the message. After I clicked to see the rest, it took me a long time to scan through the rest of these messages. Of course, if they had gone to my inbox in the normal fashion, I'd have been wading through them anyway and might have missed the more important ones SaneBox highlighted for me.
Social network streams of status updates are sometimes touted as an improvement over email, given that you decide who to follow or friend, rather than being pushed messages by anyone who gets their hand on your email address. Proof of the value of enterprise social networking software is sometimes framed in the extent it diverts message traffic away from email.
Union Square Ventures venture capitalist Fred Wilson writes that he finds social networking preferable for a lot of casual communication and that email should be whittled down to only the essential communications where it makes sense. Email remains "a truly private channel and is more suitable for long-form serious private conversations," he concludes.
Productivity expert Daniel Markovitz writes on the Harvard Business Review blog that email is fundamentally broken. He frames the improvement offered by the pull model of social communication, as opposed to the pushy nature of email, as something like the breakthrough offered by lean manufacturing--pulling in just the information you need, somewhat like a lean factory pulls in just the parts and materials it needs, as it needs them.
On the other hand, Daniel Rasmus, an expert on new ways for businesses to organize themselves (and often a speaker at UBM's E2 conferences), counters that the evils of email are overblown. "We must all ask ourselves the question of value then: 'Is managing e-mail really worthy of my time?' I would propose that with today's technology the issue is more about psychology than about managing the information," he writes. In other words, spam filters have gotten good enough to filter out most of the outright crap, and much of what weighs down our inboxes, like newsletter subscriptions, we put there ourselves. "I can unsubscribe, I can write rules. But like many people, I choose to concentrate on creating value rather than mitigating a problem that is becoming less of a problem every day," Rasmus says.
If you're ready to accept the proposition that what we need to do is get better at managing the overload, with the power of our minds as much as of our software, check out the interview with productivity expert David Allen by James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly. Allen is the creator of the Getting Things Done methodology for clearing away the clutter in your life.
"Information overload is not the issue. If it were, you'd walk into the library and die. As soon as you connected to the Web, you'd just explode," Allen says in the transcript. A walk in the woods subjects you to more information overload than scanning your inbox, "but the meaningful things in nature are relatively few--berries, bears and snakes, thunderstorms, maybe poison oak. There are only a few things in nature that force me to change behavior or make a decision. The problem with e-mail is that it's not just information; it's the need for potential action. It's the berries and snakes and bears, but they're embedded, and you don't know what's in each one."
"Not only that, but e-mail has a trait that fits the core of addictive behavior, which is random positive reinforcement," Allen adds. You scan your email compulsively because sometimes it pays off--even though most of the time it does not. Software may be able to help you identify the messages that deserve priority attention, but it's still up to you to set the priorities.
Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)