Please stop trying to kill email

Replace standard with messaging platform
Replace “standard” with “messaging platform”

Every day I get about 40 new emails. Some good, some bad. Some spam, some actionable. Only mum sends me personal emails. Hai mum. 👋

Sometimes I do something stupid like send an email with a question to 3,000 people. Those days I get a lot more email. I can’t keep up.

I try to keep up, but it never works. These days I’ve resigned to time boxing an hour or so for email every day and however much I get through, I get through. The hard part isn’t reading the email, or even answering it, the hard part is deciding all those things.

It’s a mindshare problem, really. Important stuff happens in emails. On any given day, an email might change my business strategy for the year, open job opportunities I never considered, or upset people who can’t get something I built to work.

Reading an email might take 2 minutes. Answering might take 5 minutes. Deciding what to say might take 3 hours.

How many important emails can you answer every day? I can do one or two.

All the better, then, that unanswered emails stay in your inbox forever. Waiting until you have the mindshare to answer. Or until time answers them for you. That happens too.

This system has served the internet since the early 1970’s. Almost 50 years.

Until some time in the last 5 or 6 years, the internet has decided that the menace of email cannot be allowed to go on. We all get too much email and this is terrible and we must put our foot down! Email is to be killed.

Messaging platforms proliferated. IM systems abound. If Zawinski’s law used to say that “Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail.” it should now be rephrased to say “Every app gains features until it can do instant messaging”. “Until it has a chat bot” will soon be added to this law.

As a result, I have about 43 different inboxes. 43 places where people can send me messages and might expect a reply. Some of them I check, some of them I don’t. Some of them I didn’t even know had instant messaging until I tried to count my inboxes.

On at least 30 of those inboxes, people have sent me business-level messages, expecting a real reply. Usually people who say “Eh he probably gets too much email. Maybe if I message him on this other thing, he’ll reply immediately.”

No, no I won’t. I mean I might, but not if it’s something important. If it’s important, then I’m going to see it, and the notification icon will go away and I won’t have the mindshare to make a decision and I will forget your message exists.

That happens more than I dare to admit. It used to happen for email before I instituted my once-a-day policy. But I’m not going to institute that policy for all 43 of my inboxes. I’d never get anything done.

And so I resign to dreading many of my inboxes. I’m too afraid to open them. To lose track of what’s new. Once I’m in there, I have to go through it all. And the number grows and the dread piles on. The longer I leave it closed, the more afraid I am of opening that inbox.

I don’t know that there’s a solution. I don’t think there is. It’s a people problem, not a technology problem.

Maybe we can start by not creating even more messaging platforms?

PS: I write about being an engineer and creative [almost] every week. You should subscribe by email.

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