Why email is the devil

Email is the devil, I’m sure of it.  Unfortunately, it’s the official form of communication for many institutions, including my own.  I’m inextricably tied to it, and somewhere over the last few years, it turned me into something I never thought I’d be:  a hoarder!  Well, the devil doesn’t work alone, you have to give him the power.  Let me explain the whole sordid tale, and what I did after I saw the light…

TL;DR

  • Gmail is awesome
  • Saving every email you get is a terrible idea
  • There are better tools than email for most work-related communication tasks
  • My email “rules of engagement”

I like to keep my communication organized; always have.  Over the years, I’ve used a range of email programs including Outlook, Mac Mail and Thunderbird.  Of course, I’ve used web clients for almost as long, but I always found it comforting to store everything locally.  No matter which program I used, I carefully created folders to neatly store everything for future reference.  And I do mean EVERYTHING.  I had literally hundreds of folders that broke things down by project, organizational affiliation, function, you name it.  It got to the point that my folders were so granular, it became a more-than-once daily conundrum about which folder to store my email in…not to mention the mileage I was putting on my trackpad!

Several months ago, one of my staff members introduced me to a better way of managing Gmail that literally changed my life.   Yes, literally.  The article that describes “the way” is here:  http://klinger.io/post/71640845938/dont-drown-in-email-how-to-use-gmail-more  In simple terms, it takes advantage of the multiple inbox extension, activation and actual use of keyboard shortcuts, filters and labels.  While I got used to doing things this way, I kept my Mac Mail client running for a couple weeks.  After only three days, I knew there was no turning back.  I was able to fly through my email in minutes per day, not hours.  This was the nice “clean break” I needed.  However, I still had about seven years of email I felt obligated to do something about.

While I used Mac Mail for my work email account and Thunderbird for my personal email account, thankfully I did not have to worry about manually exporting and importing .mbox files.  Way back in 2007, I created a Gmail account that I used exclusively as a repository for both my personal and work accounts.  After seven years of forwarding from two accounts, I had over 75,000 emails stuffed in that account.  I had to figure out the best way to move it all into the Gmail account I use now.  I found a great article that explained how to do exactly that here:  http://email.about.com/od/gmailtips/qt/How-To-Move-Mail-From-One-Gmail-Account-To-Another-Using-Only-Gmail.htm  Once set up, the transfer process happens automatically (that took about four days, in case you’re wondering).  Of course, none of THAT email was organized, so I had a ton of email sitting inside an “archive” label to sort through.  This was a challenge, even with my newfound Gmail-fu.  A number of custom filters – some of them used only once and then deleted – eliminated about half of the mail I knew I didn’t need, leaving me with about 40,000 emails.  I’m committed to going through these, 1,000 per day until they’re all gone.

Digressing briefly, I have to mention some of the other work-related communication tools I’ve been using a lot recently.  What these tools have in common is fitness of purpose:

  • Basecamp:  an extremely popular online project management and communication tool.
  • Pivotal Tracker:  an agile project management tool used by software development teams.
  • Slack:  this is the tool that really helped me see the light and redeemed me.  Slack aggregates all communication associated with a project.  It combines the best parts of instant messaging with twitter, and – most importantly – has integration hooks into literally thousands of tools that developers use, like github, basecamp, errbit, pretty much every bug/feature tracker, and more.  There’s no better tool out there that lets teams clearly see who’s doing what and when.  It’s amazing and I can’t imagine working without it.

Anyway, as I was going through those 40,000 emails last weekend, I had an epiphany:  the vast majority of this email just doesn’t matter anymore.  Many were critically important at the time they were written, but they’re basically worthless now.  This fact doesn’t change the reality that I still have to go through all that mail, but it made deleting things so much easier.

It’s now painfully obvious to me why storing every email is a bad idea:

  1. Not every email is equally useful (duh)
  2. Finding important stuff gets harder over time
  3. “Inbox zero” becomes more elusive
  4. It’s a liability (maybe even legally)
  5. It’s a heavy psychic weight to carry

Here are my new not-quite-perfected email “rules of engagement:”

  1. Use email only for official communications that have a shelf life greater than one month.  This includes:
    • Budgeting
    • Contracts
    • Staffing, i.e. hiring, firing, merit increases
    • Strategic things that directly affect the bottom line
    • CYA (we all have our unique reasons)
  2. Delete everything more than one year old, unless it fits into rule #1 (even then, it’s probably less important than you think).  I’m shocked at how few of my precious old emails contained any information worth keeping.
  3. Inbox zero, ALL THE TIME.  There’s no good reason to keep anything in your inbox.  Waiting on an answer from someone? Tag it and archive it.  Need to schedule a bill payment on the 24th?  Tag it and archive it.  Delegated a task to your staff?  Tag it and archive it.
  4. Use the right tool for the job.
    • Got a sensitive topic?  Pick up the phone!  Or better yet, pay that person a visit.
    • Collaboratively riffing on an idea in real-time?  Use Google Hangouts, Skype, Face Time, or GoTo Meeting.
    • Need to communicate with a project team?  Use Basecamp, Pivotal Tracker, Slack, etc.
    • Got to write something short for the world to see?  Use Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, RSS, etc.
    • Got to write something long-form for the world to see?  Use a blog or an old-fashioned web site.
    • Editing a document with colleagues?  Use Google Drive (docs, spreadsheets, presentations) or Box.  There are lots of options in this space.

Email is still a great tool when you want to send someone the equivalent of a memo, but for most of the work I do today, email is the wrong tool for the job.  Don’t let email steal your life!