There are two sounds that remind me of technology in the 1990s. The screechy noise of a 28.8k modem exchanging hellos with your pay-per-minute ISP, and that damn AOL voice speaking to you on those rare occasions you received an e-mail.
Generally speaking, I feel nostalgic for 1990s technology. In those innocent days I created my first web site — a compendium of emoticons called ‘the smiley directory’ (I wish I still had a copy…) — but I do prefer broadband, twitter and all those other wonderful things the intervening 15 years have brought us.
What do we have left from the nineties, like one of those dirty bourbon hangovers that take two days to clear? E-mail.
I despise email. It’s taken over so much of my life. It’s all over my computer. Replaced most post. Infected my phone. Pretty much killed the humble telephone call.
All around me in the office, at my clients, when I speak to my friends, all I hear is stress about e-mail. “I have so many unanswered messages” …. “I feel like I’ve missed something really big” …. “I’m sure there is someone I’ve not got back to” …. “The best thing about Christmas vacation? No e-mail”
Apps abound to take us to the mythical state of ‘inbox zero’. The only time I’ve reached this tech nirvana was three months ago when I pressed ‘archive all’ in a bout of frustration, deleting around 1000 unread emails in the process. (Funnily enough, I didn’t seem to miss anything by reading none of those.) These apps, such as the wonderful Mailbox, focus more on getting rid of e-mails than reading them. A bit like bug spray, if you think about it. There are countless apps in the market created to help us regain control of our digital lives — from Sanebox to Google’s own Priority Inbox. But none of them get to the crux of the problem, the root of the disease.
I started my first ever ‘real’ job in 2000 at Arthur Andersen, the now deceased accounting giant. Accessing e-mail required plugging in a telephone cable and syncing Lotus Notes twice a day — and Andersen were ahead of the pack in many ways. I’d have around 10 or so messages to process each time. E-mail took up, at most, 30 minutes of my day. Ever since then, I’ve felt e-mail devour more and more and more of my working day. I could easily spend my entire working day sending, receiving, filing and processing e-mails. All around me in tech, I see people whose jobs are just that. Productivity is disappearing in an industry that is supposed to be ultra efficient as so many people spend 4 hours, 5 hours, 6 hours of their working days typing out messages.
I’m pleased to say that the tide is starting to turn. Around a year ago, I received this superb auto-response from a journalist I wanted to invite to Decoded:
I was blown away. The concept of a vacation from e-mail sounded like the most wonderful experience. An inbox detox. I’ve still never met Ms Clancy (after all, she never saw my message) but I was instantly inspired. If I really wanted to reach her I could have used Twitter, called her office, wrote a letter. Her detox didn’t turn her into a hermit. But it did, I expect, give her the necessary headspace to actually do her job rather than spending her days sending e-mails back and forth where she only talks about doing her job.
I’ve started to notice this more and more — auto response as a tool to reduce the number of e-mails that an individual needs to process, or at the very least, manage expectations of the sender as to when they can expect a reply.
Another way of getting e-mail out of your life is giving it to someone else to do for you. Richard Branson famously dictates all his e-mails and tweets to his assistant to save time . It might sound old-school, but it’s a bandwagon I will jump on the second I can.
The closest I’ve been able to get is disabling push notifications for e-mail on my phone. My sanity levels have soared since. Not having a constantly increasing little red number telling you how many more messages you need to process does wonders for the mind.
My current favourite app for reducing the number of e-mails I have to process is unroll.me. It scans your gmail inboxes for any regular e-mail newsletters or marketing e-mails you receive. These items aren’t necessarily spam — you often want to read the content in there — but you don’t want it continually interrupting your working day. Unroll.me identified no less than 89 e-mail subscriptions that regularly filled my inbox. It takes them out of my inbox and consolidates them into one long e-mail I receive once a day. It’s reduced the number of e-mails I receive by over 20 a day. A miracle!
In addition to reducing the number of e-mails that come into my inbox, I’m trying to reduce the number that go out. Not only do I call and tweet more, but I recently bought a set of correspondence cards for when I want to send a personal message such as a ‘thank you’. If you know where someone works, it’s easy to find their office address. There’s something wonderful about receiving something physical in the post that you can display on your desk or treasure as a keepsake. An electronic ‘thank you’ gets read and deleted in a space of around 0.5 seconds. A correspondence card only leaves when you throw it in recycling.
Postagram are another super interesting start-up in this space. If you take a photo of yourself and a friend that’s really nice, rather than e-mailing that photo to them, Postagram allows you to send a print of that picture to them in the mail. Much more personable, much more memorable. (As for e-cards….don’t get me started on e-cards)
In a world where everyone secretly wants to live at Downton Abbey, I feel the art of writing letters is about to return. Perhaps with a tech twist. I’ve put money where my mouth is — I’m hanging on to my stock in Royal Mail.
I remember some great advice I received around 8 years ago from a very old school boss when I worked at an advertising agency. Steve once said to me:
“You know the problem with young people nowadays, you all hide behind your computers and never talk to anyone any more”
Steve wasn’t making a profound judgement, it was more of a throwaway comment. But it stuck with me. Instead of e-mailing our production department (around a 30 second walk away) I would go speak to them instead. Instead of writing a note with feedback to our creative teams, I’d call and do it by voice. My interpersonal relationships improved immeasurably. It’s probably the single best piece of business advice anyone ever gave me.
I can feel the end of e-mail coming. The future is bright. So many people I know hate their inbox, they stand ready to jump on any decent alternative. Yammer is beginning to replace e-mail within corporations. Twitter has started to replace e-mail for messaging between busy people in the tech world. Processing 160 characters beats dealing with writing “Thanks for your message” 50 times a day.
At Decoded we created a simple internal electronic noticeboard to share interesting articles and stories from around the web, as an alternative to forwarding links to the all-office e-mail address. It’s called “Lantern” and it’s been a phenomenal success. People check it out when they need a five minute break and it doesn’t interrupt their day.
The future is bright. The end is nigh.