Email Overload? Reclaim Your Inbox, Don’t Banish It

4 minute read

I recently read two articles while riding the bus[1]. The first one was in Forbes Magazine. Thierry Breton, the CEO of Atos Global, has decreed that since he “believes that only 20 out of every 200 emails received by his staff every day turn out to be important,” within eighteen months the use of email will be eradicated company wide, replacing it with social media, phone calls and in person meetings.

Contrast this with the second article I read, Don’t blame the information for your bad habits, an interview with Clay Johnson by Mac Slocum in the O’Reilly Radar. Clay states that “[w]e don’t need to manage the information. We need to manage the consumption of it.” According to his new book The Information Diet, just as a binge eater cannot blame the food he eats a person suffering from the poorly-named “Information Overload” cannot blame the information.

To some extent I agree with both of these men. Excessive information (including email) is a danger to productivity. It diverts attention, derails trains of thought and increases stress. However, considering Mr. Breton’s concern over the reported high level of distraction caused by reading unnecessary email messages, I’m rather surprised at the alternatives being proposed. While unnecessary emails are distracting, I find it difficult to believe they are more so than social networking, phone calls or meetings (which we all know I believe can be improved). These routes of communication all tend to be highly impromptu and interuptive. Rather than improve the signal to noise ratio of the emails sent within Atos Global (or the email handling of the employees), he instead blames the email itself and chooses to cut off the service. I dunno… I just feel this may be one of those “Farewell bathwater! Baby? What baby?” sort of situations.

I agree with Clay Johnson: email is not to blame here. Rather than taking the somewhat drastic move of banning email, perhaps Atos Global would first consider applying these suggestions:

  1. Eliminate or filter most automated messages. We all get them. Output reports from cron, record update notifications from the CRM software, escalation warnings for issues on projects we haven’t worked on for months. These emails either need to stop or should be filtered out of inboxes.
  2. Refactor internal aliases and/or mailing lists. I mean refactor in its most technical sense here. Like code, so often the contents of these things evolve over the years. Cruft accumulates and is never cleaned up, leading to a lot of unnecessary emails. Each internal alias and mailing list membership should be examined. What is the purpose of the list? Remove any recipient who does not contribute to that purpose. Don’t forget to run some tests to be sure you haven’t broken anything (removed someone you shouldn’t have, for example).
  3. Suggest new internal email handling policies. Request that each staff member change his or her email client settings, downloading email only twice a day and disabling any desktop/taskbar/etc. notifications. This is a tough one as people get very attached to their personal workflows, but these relatively small changes can lead to a lot more undisturbed contiguous moments in everyone’s day. You can always find some technology which enforces it but, really, that’s a bit too Big Brother-y for my tastes. My preference would be some form of firm but gentle social engineering, starting with telling everyone precisely why they are being asked to make the changes requested. The people with whom you work are incredibly intelligent and they’re adults. Treat them that way and most of them will see the good sense in the suggested changes.
  4. Selectively change communication media. Thierry Breton is correct: email is not always the right tool for the job. What sort of information is being exchanged via email at your organization? Do an email survey and try to categorize the communication that’s happening. Would any categories be better suited to a different medium? Could those long emails explaining the database architecture perhaps be written into the wiki instead? That “anyone for lunch?” message to the team would undoubtedly be better on the IRC channel, wouldn’t it? Perhaps the company could roll out Google Docs rather than emailing around a Word file for document collaboration.

You’d be surprised just how far you can get with these changes. I keep my own inbox at or hovering just above zero thanks to some of these suggestions. I got 99 problems but an inbox ain’t one.

If anyone has tried any of them at their company or on their project I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I’d be particularly interested if you have any metrics you could share.

[1] Using Spool, a new online app which is changing my online reading habits for the better. Think Instapaper but better (for instance: offline viewing of videos). No, they didn’t ask me to say this. I honestly do love and use the service. 🙂 [Back to Reading!]