Email Management Ideas

Last week, I explained why Google’s Priority Inbox feature was terrible for worker productivity. This week, I’ll explain what they should do instead.

The reason that I can’t stand Priority Inbox—which automatically reorders your messages based on what Google thinks is most pressing—is because this is conflict-avoidance for email. You already get too much email, and instead of tackling the problem Google is simply keeping most of the problem out of view.

This is not terrible if you practice efficient email management techniques. But if you’re the equivalent of an email hoarder and have hundreds or thousands of messages, Google is the enabling friend who shuffles boxes around in your overstuffed home. Priority Inbox makes the issue worse, not better.

It’s not as if this is a new philosophy for Google. As explained in their about section (emphasis added):

Use Google search within Gmail to find the exact message you want, no matter when it was sent or received. You don’t have to spend time sorting your email, just search for a message when you need it and we’ll find it for you.

With Gmail, each message you send is grouped with all the responses you receive. This conversation view continues to grow as new replies arrive, so you can always see your messages in context.

We’re always working to increase the amount of free storage we offer in Gmail, and if you want even more, you can always purchase additional space. With all that space, you can archive instead of deleting messages, so they won’t clutter your inbox but will remain searchable in case you ever need them again.

Again, this is enabling behavior. You can’t really learn to deal with email directly if systems like Gmail allow you to avoid actually processing email messages and deleting them or organizing them yourself. Would you really want a storage unit that automatically expanded as you kept adding items? Or would you rather try to figure out how to simplify your life so that you didn’t need the storage unit in the first place?

What Google Should Do

In order to understand what Google should be doing instead of inventing new ways to support bad behavior, we need to know a little bit more about how email works. Right now, Google does include a feature to show the “original” email message without all the bells and whistles of the Gmail interface:

email overload gmail

If you click that, you will get something like the following:


Delivered-To: your-email@gmail.com
Received: by 10.216.49.11 with SMTP id w11cs15001web;
Wed, 8 Sep 2010 03:47:18 -0700 (PDT)
From: Bob Smith <their-email@domain.com>
To: Joan Thomas <joan.thomas@companyx.com>, Fran Harmony <fh423@hotmail.com>
Date: Wed, 8 Sep 2010 06:45:56 -0400
Subject: Re: New T-Shirt Orders
Thread-Topic: New T-Shirt Orders
Thread-Index: ActPAcOJHK4W9ltpR4Gn2ckaZlFbIQ3Psw5w
Message-ID: <AD732AB08D3DF97D41ABF74FAA09BD670A4DE28275@MAILR001.mail.lan>
References: <AANLkTimZ5Fv_Sj5C3AmT9JH8UgvRgfA99zyPXPojj8=1@mail.gmail.com>
In-Reply-To: <AANLkTgfA9AmT9JH8imZ5Fv_Sj5C3gvRU9zyPXPojj8=1@mail.gmail.com>
MIME-Version: 1.0

Those bits of text are called email headers. They provide information about the email beyond just what you see in the body. For example, the subject of the message is “Re: New T-Shirt Orders”, but the Thread-Topic is simply “New T-Shirt Orders.” That’s because this message is actually a reply to an earlier message, and the sender’s email program is keeping track of the original subject.

From what I can tell, there are about 200 million active Gmail users in the world. That’s enough clout that Google can suggest new email headers and others are likely to follow suit. Consider for example these ideas:

Automated-Newsletter: – Used to voluntarily mark an email as part of an ongoing newsletter. That way, companies that send these messages (“email service providers”) could receive a special mark in inboxes.

Replaces-Unread-Message-X: – This header could be used to indicate that an email should completely replace a previous message. That way, if you need to send out an update and someone hasn’t read the previous message, they don’t need to see both.

Expires-After: – Indicate a date after which the message is definitely not relevant if it has never been read. Old messages could be pushed into an archive or deleted entirely.

These kinds of extensions, if implemented judiciously, could help change email for the better. Google needs to rethink Priority Inbox. Instead of helping people use email irresponsibly, they should change the design of email by encouraging better behavior.

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  • http://michaelmiller68.wordpress.com/ Michael Miller

    Interesting post, Robby, but I have to disagree. The premise that we should all be better organized is sound, but being better organized is just a means to an end. By contanstly cleaning up my desk and keeping things filed in a logical manner, I can be a more effective, less stressed person. That’s my goal, not a clean desk.

    Now, if someone came along and said they had a fantastic new, magical filing cabinet that I could just drop papers and files into and then recover them when I needed them – I would toss all the time-consuming organizing aside and take that magic cabinet in a second. I think many people would and I don’t see what’s wrong with that if it gets us to our end goal.

    Now, I haven’t tried Google’s Priority inbox – my Google mail account is not one of my core accounts – so I can’t really speak to what it does or doesn’t do. Maybe it is all smoke and mirrors, but if it is a magic cabinet, I might try it.

    Michael

    • http://www.accelawork.com Robby Slaughter

      Thanks for the comments, Michael!

      For me, the point is that most people get too much email. No matter how advanced the mechanisms for sorting that email and making it searchable, the fundamental problem is the volume. Features like Gmail Priority Inbox (and even the lauded “archive instead of delete”) allow us to avoid the real problem.

      I do think we need to be better organized, and that better organization can lead to less stress. But I also believe that it’s the the case that simply having less stuff will increase our quality of life. I want to encourage people to recognize that email technology can be improved to help us decide what to toss, not just what to de-prioritize.

      • David

        Hi Robby,

        I understand where you are coming from with this post, and in some ways I would agree with you in principle. In practise however, I couldn’t disagree more.

        The problem is that people by nature are lazy and do like to avoid conflict, especially when being flooded with it! This is not going to change any time soon. So with that being said Google is trying to intelligently work around us and make life easier and more productive.

        Perhaps much of your issue with gmail is their underlying philosophy of what email is for and how it can be managed? For very light email users the concepts you describe seem totally sensible, and maybe 10 years ago the majority of people would have fallen into this category. But these days though communicating via email is for many people, more vital and prolific than the telephone and printed letter combined.

        The entropy of our systems is growing exponentially and therefore we have to sink more time/energy into countering it. The technology and management practises gmail employs can considerably minimize this, but it does require some shift in the way we consider things to be “organized”. I would disagree that the best answer it to modify behaviour and simply treat email ask spoken conversation, deleting most messages.

        I have to admit it did take me a long time to “let go” and embrace the evil G machine. I used to be an avid “folder” guy. You know, endlessly sorting email into folder under folder, and this is in addition to deleting and un-subscribing from tons I didn’t want to keep. It drove my crazy cause it took forever!

        Buy by embracing the whole philosophy of gmail and employing a consistent labelling/deleting/un-subscribing I get considerably more done in the same amount of time.

        But the thing that really makes this possible is the search philosophy. The fact is love them or hate them, their search algorithms are just THAT good. In fact I can think of a phrase, fragment, subject, idea, attachment from an email I want, type it in and ban! It’s there in seconds. Wherever and however it is behind the gmail scenes, swirling in the messy digital chaos, I don’t see it. Yet I have instant access to it.

        My inbox is clean, organized and I have access via labels and search to instant access to any email I want kept. Priority inbox is just another way of trying to intelligently cut down on the time we spend managing information we want to keep.

        David

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