With apologies to my dear friend Luis Suarez and his goal of eliminating email, there are just times when email does the job fairly well.
I have any number of friends and colleagues who have worked hard to eliminate or give up email … always because of the jam-ups they experienced, always so that they could avoid much of the intrusion from unwanted communications, and so that they would have more time to “converse” or communicate in other more effective ways. Now I am sure that they will spend much of their time in other, unintended intrusions from unwanted communications, or find out that email as a way of following and building a conversation, in context, is not so bad, etc.
The good parts of email is that, when it works well, it provides this ability to follow and build upon a conversation amongst a few people. The back-and-forth doesn't have to be real time, but over the course of a few days, it is a useful place to have and record a conversation.
The difficulty - and I think one that causes many people to drown in email - is that these conversations extend far beyond one or two people, or they extend outside of the single email conversation to include other email threads, websites, documents, and references to conversation fragments that happen outside the email environment (lunchtime, phone, IM, etc). In other words, the thread of the conversation gets lost or overwhelmed with everything else. Another element that Jon and the NY Times article touches upon is the social assumption that a reply is expected. This "overload" is why it is so important to have good practices around anything you use in your communications.
Some of those practices for email?
- Don't send email to people who don't need it. (Don't clog someone else's inbox.)
- Send email with clear subject lines and clear calls to action in the first few lines. (If people don't know what to do with your mail, it will clog up their inbox AND delay any response you were expecting.)
- If you must send attachments, tell people what you expect them to do with it. Is it an FYI? Do you want them to review it (by when)?
- Filter your incoming mail as much as possible (mailing lists and "news" blasts should stay out of your inbox).
- If you don't have time to reply to any messages, then don't bother checking your mail.
- When you make the time to read incoming mail, triage it immediately. There are many techniques. I still like the 4 D's: Do, Delete, Date, Delegate. This is all geared around getting it out of your Inbox, so it doesn't consume extra mental cycles. But you also must have a mechanism to access it at the appropriate time for those things that have been Date activated or Delegated. (Another take on email triage.)
- Be intelligent about using your smartphone in connection with email processing: many platforms make it difficult to file away mail, meaning you have to process it again when you get back to your main mailbox. The smartphone should be used to clear out the obvious Delete messages and potentially respond to emergencies.
This discussion of the limitations of email leads me to comment briefly on the written excitement over Google Wave. I'm not about to watch the 80 minute video posted to their website, but several commenters have boiled it down to something that makes more sense to me, namely the quote from Lars Rasmussen: What might email look like if it were invented today? (Good reviews from Tim O'Reilly and Mashable's Complete Guide.)
To my eyes, Google Wave is an attempt to address the many drawbacks of email that I mentioned above. It still assumes conversations are happening entirely electronically (and that the technology will be around to support Waves), but it also acknowledges the naturally distributed nature of communications. We will see what comes of it when they get around to releasing prototypes sometime later this year.
Back to the original topic... People want to be connected, and email has been a good source of this connection since the 90's. The problem is that there is just too much of it, and that it is over-used. Luis Suarez' is taking an extreme position intentionally, but many people would benefit from simply sending less.