declaration of email independence

Michael Arrington laments the state of his inbox, and calls for someone to solve the problem of email gone wild. The problem with email is that it doesn’t scale. The solution of creating complex rules, filters, and forwards only serves to move email around but doesn’t solve the problem that it will always take a finite amount of time to process a piece of email, even just to click delete. Ultimately, what is needed is to reduce the volume of mail, not attempt to sort it.

There is a solution, but it isn’t for the faint of heart. The answer to email tyranny is email independence. Consider the types of email we get:

– personal email from friends and family
– email related to work
– email from strangers
– spam

The key is to eliminate mail from each category. Ultimately, you want to receive less mail overall, so that the “signal to noise ratio” of your inbox is improved. Let’s consider each of these in reverse order.

Spam is actually the easiest to handle, as built-in mail filters do a decent job. However, a great technique to improve the performance even further is to forward your mail from one account to another. For example, you might have a public yahoo email address, which forwards to your private gmail account. Email must survive the spam checks on both accounts in order to reach you.

Email from strangers is usually a matter of convenience – for the stranger. Do you really need a public email so that people can contact you? The easiest way to cull mail from those people you do not know (outside of a work context, of course) is to employ a whitelist, a list of contacts who alone are permitted to email you. Email from anyone not on the whitelist gets an auto-response indicating that you don’t know who they are and if they really need to contact you, they can do so via an alternate method, such as a voicemail box (preferably one custom reserved for this purpose). Whitelists are not a standard feature of most free webmail services but there are various ways to achieve it, Google is the best resource.

Email related to work is simple in theory – just use your work email, and do not use that email for anything other than work. Arrange things so that your work email is inaccessible outside of work. Or at worst, read only. Time spent clearing the work inbox is time spent doing work by definition, assuming you’ve strictly limited your use of that acct to work matters alone.

The other strategy for work email avoidance is to heavily embrace other intra-office communication methods. Embrace tools like LinkedIn, become an Outlook Calendar power user, or Notes depending on your environment. Think about setting up a wiki for intraoffice documentation rather than the endless parade of word documents. And of course, use the phone for quick questions or other instant communication needs. The typical office is brimming with technologies and software that can be used to circumvent email for routine communication.

Finally, the hardest nut to crack – your friends and family. For the most part, the best solution here is to realize that because these people are already in your life, they probably will never rely on email for something truly important. Thus, you can safely let most of this email go into your Family folder unread. If something important comes up you can always use the search function of your email service/client to retrieve it. But on the whole, train your friends and family to realize that you rarely read their emails, by simply repeating the phrase, “oh, I must have missed that email…” a lot. They will adapt accordingly.

Analogously to the office scenario, though, you do want to retain the ability to engage in routine communication with your friends and family. Using tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, and heavily adopting RSS and proselytizing it heavily, will emable you to do most of that social communication through a feedreader and web browser rather than a cluttered inbox. The Facebook news feed is orders of magnitude more efficient than email in keeping up to date on birthdays, events, and other miscellany. Likewise with “subscribing” to your friends and family on Flickr or delicious instead of emailing links and photos back and forth. Its possible to offload most of this content onto the social network scene.

There are probably a lot of other ways to transition away from email. But all of this requires a serious commitment. After all, email will always enjoy an ease of use advantage over the various services and whatnot you might employ as surrogates. With discipline though, it can be done. I am not there myself yet, but ot’s something to work towards 🙂