Email Overload

Email overload is a hot topic that has been around for a good 10+ years in my career. People are mad that Outlook hasn’t solved it and so many entrepreneurs go after creating “email killers.” I wont knock anyone for trying to build the next great email application (Mailbox got well paid for their slick app), although email is not the problem, it is how people use email. Below I lay out why email is great, some of the reasons why people use it incorrectly, and how I tackled it at companies where I worked.

  1. Email Pros:
    1. Standards based, meaning anyone with your address can send you a message without worrying about which system you use to receive email, nor does that system care about what you used to send the email. This is extremely powerful, you can’t do that with Facebook, Skype, Gchat, or WhatsApp. All these systems are closed so unless you are on their platform, you can’t get the messages; the opposite of the “open internet” we all profess to love.
    2. Assuming you use Exchange, Google Apps or Yahoo, contacts and calendars are also managed very well. Enabling you to use one product for all your needs.
  2. How People Use Email Incorrectly:
    1. File Sharing: Before cloud storage and simple file sharing was common; thank you Box and OneDrive. People thought email should be able to receive huge attachments so we used it as a file repository.
    2. Task Management: Email was never designed to be a task manager. Outlook and Gmail have tried to build good task managers into their solutions and they do the basic job. They are not built for teams or projects.
    3. CC Abuse: The bigger the company, the more people have to get CC’ed and so people live in their inbox always checking for the next message. Unless you are client facing or doing customer support, there is no reason to be in your inbox all day. You will actually be more productive not hanging out in your inbox.

How I Tackled Email Overload:

At Clikthrough people were communicating over email and using it as a task management solution. As the CEO, with so many emails and requests to field every day, I personally couldn’t keep up. I saw this as a problem for myself and the entire team. We wasted a lot of time and money when we couldn’t communicate effectively. To stop all the madness, I created a simple set of subject codes that we used internally to drive efficiency in dealing with issues that mattered. In doing so, we greatly cut down on the noise that our inbox plagued us with. It allowed us to quickly scan our inbox for subject codes that we knew needed attention. For those a bit more ambitious, they created rules to filter these messages to specific folders so they could go there quickly to see what they needed to accomplish. These codes worked for us once everyone get into the habit of using them. Yes, you do have to force people to adopt new habits.

  1. Email Subject Codes:
    1. IO: Info Only
    2. RR: Response Required
    3. DN: Decision Needed
    4. ACT: Extremely Urgent

That’s it, just 4 simple codes that enabled us to quickly view our inbox and see what items needed attention. Here is how we used them with a couple of simple rules.

  1. IO was good for sharing news articles, lunch updates, holidays and anything generic that people don’t need to read right away.
  2. RR, DN, ACT, were designed for taking action and described the level of urgency around the action. If you were copying several people, we asked that you put the person’s name or initials in the subject after the code. That way the recipients know who is required to respond.
  3. Examples:
    1. Subject: IO: Google acquires company XYZ
      1. Body: Link to the article.
  4. Subject: RR: Update on Gucci contract
    1. Body: Specifically address what you need.

This solution doesn’t solve all problems, nor deals with communications outside the company; little hard to force change on clients 🙂 What this does is cut down on the noise of email overload and focuses the message to the right place. For real collaboration, more effective communication, and task management, tools such as Asana, Skype and Slack are best used to talk about specific items one-on-one or within groups. Email is exactly what it says, it is an “inbox.” A place for information to come in just like your mailbox at home. What you do with it and how you deal with it is up to you.

Email will not go away anytime soon, it just needs to be used properly. Hopefully this idea sparks creative ways for you to create standards within your organization.

About Abe McCallum

My name is Abe McCallum, and I am a Product Architect. I have spent my career pursuing one passionate objective: Create the best products that customers love & enrich their lives. See my work:


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