Deconstructing the Email Myth

The-email-mythProductive people hate email. If you pay attention to productivity tips at all, then you’ve likely read too many posts about email hacks already. The email inbox ranks high on the nuisance scale. The average person it seems spends way too much time with their emails. I think that is a myth.

So how comes that virtually every blogger who writes about modern life has written at least one ‘email strategy post’ over the last year? And isn’t it ironic, when at the same time all these bloggers ask you to sign up for their newsletters?

I don’t want to be a hypocrite here. Yes, I also ask you for your email address and I also write about managing our email inbox. Yet, with this post I want to question how much of a problem email actually is. It is not the email inbox that’s the problem, is it?

How much trouble do you really have with your email inbox?

Before I get to the problem,  I want to talk about why email is still one of the best means of communication.

For me personal one-on-one communication tops everything. Then why don’t we meet everyone in person?
Because we can’t.

Yet, we can reach literally everyone via email. And that makes email so appealing. Unlike with a phone call or meeting, your recipient doesn’t have to be available at the time you want to communicate. The other huge advantage of email is that you can reach a lot of people at the same time. And unlike a video or audio broadcast it doesn’t require much setup, cost or effort. Our email inbox is still something very personal to us which makes email a more personal way of communication than it often is. If you see it from the sender’s side it means that sending an email is a way to get close to someone whom you don’t even know. And that is why everyone asks you for your email (me included).

So what is your problem with emails?

If I had just spilled red wine on my dress shirt I would likely google something like “how to remove red wine stains”

So how would you phrase your email problem? How about “how to spend less time on email”? I think at the end it comes down to time. For some reason we don’t want to spend a lot of time with emails. But how much time do you think is too much?

If you answer is zero time, then please delete all your email accounts. Voilà , problem solved.

All others, please think about why you have an email address? I can only see two reasons:

  1. communication and
  2. notification.

You want to communicate with friends and family, with clients or colleagues, or with other people like your kids’ teachers, your doctor, the tech support, etc. And you want to get notified about current events, like order updates, new products, server downtime alerts, Facebook messages and so on. I can’t see other reasons.

Reality No 1: You are using email to communicate and to get notified.

Sounds pretty useful to me.

Clearly not the number of emails we want to send is the issue, but the number of emails we have to interact with. But this number is something we can control.
I may oversimplify things here, but I believe there are only three types of basic personas who receive emails:

  1. Someone who gets emails as part of their business/employment.
  2. Someone who has fans.
  3. Everyone else (private people).

You likely have several email accounts that cover some or all these personas above.

Reality No 2: You can only interact with emails you receive. (Duh!)

So where is the problem?

Businesses

If you are running a business, I am sure you won’t complain about too many emails if each single one of them increased your profit, would you? If you are getting too many emails that don’t convert into revenue at all, then you may be doing something wrong.

Just to give two examples: Questions and complaints. In both cases you have to be grateful for receiving those emails. Whoever takes the time to write you such an email does you a service. Questions are a sign that whatever you put out there was not clear enough. A complaint shows you that something did not happen the way the customer expected. These emails show you what to fix in your business and thus there is no reason to fret about spending time with them.

If your inbox contains too much internal communication then you could switch to a project management platform. Such a platform allows you to keep such communication shorter, more on the point and most of all out of your email inbox. Asana for example works just fine for me.

If your inbox contains too much internal communication then you could switch to a project management platform. Such a platform allows you to keep such communication shorter, more on the point and most of all out of your email inbox. Asana for example works just fine for me.

Private people

If you are a private person then your email communication will look completely different and none of the above will apply. However, you can control who gets your email address. If you enjoy reading many newsletters then there are simple solutions to keep them from overflowing your inbox. You could use Gmail filters or Unroll.me. I also have a separate email address only to sign up for newsletters. This way I my main email account doesn’t get clogged up with information that I don’t have to interact with.

I also have a separate email address only to sign up for newsletters. This way I my main email account doesn’t get clogged up with information that I don’t have to interact with.
It is similar for alerts and notifications. If you check into Facebook or Twitter every day anyway, then why not turn email notifications off altogether?

People with Fans

What remains are people with fans.  I am not thinking about celebrities, but anyone who has a good (or bad) enough reputation that compels people to write them emails. If that is you, then congrats! With regards to your email inbox you are not a private person anymore, but don’t have a profitable business at your hand either.

To be fair, a lot of people don’t want to make money from everything they do. Many people simply enjoy sharing their passions and may thus create some kind of following. It is great to get positive feedback from strangers, what compels you to read and answer all the emails you are getting. That also explains why so many bloggers write about email problems. However, not all their readers may share the same email load. Unless of course all their readers are successful bloggers themselves.

When you are putting something out in the public, is more fans than you can handle the most unfortunate of all possible outcomes? Then why not take down your contact page and close all comments?

I am just suggesting that these many emails are part of the deal and not a problem. Emails are only a problem if you make them one. When you are open with your fans they will understand if they don’t get an answer to every email. Just ignore the 10 to 20% of people who will complain anyway.

Reality No 3: If you love the sun don’t hate the heat.

I think we should start to be reasonable. Almost everything great comes with a side effect. We should remember why we are using them and consider what the alternatives are. And so I am not complaining about air travel, cars, cell phones or coffee to go and for sure not about email.


Please feel free to contact me with your email problem. Yes, I know I am playing with fire, but I mean it. You are also invited to leave a comment and tell me what you think about how bad email really is.