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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Why Do People Find Email So Difficult To Deal With?

Comments (21)

I noticed two articles in the NY Times this morning that pressed my email theme button.  The first was actually from yesterday – Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made BeastThe second was In the E-Mail Relay, Not Every Handoff Is Smooth.

Both are interesting, but relatively light weight articles.  That’s not really a surprise since they are aimed at the mainstream public instead of Joe Techie.  There are a few fun things in Lost in E-Mail … such as the new and exciting "Gmail E-Mail Addict" feature that lets the user take a 15 minute break by hitting a button or a neat program called Rescue Time which tracks how much time you are spending in different applications (I used it for a few weeks until I got bored of seeing how much time I was spending on email.)  However, neither really gets at the core of the issue they are addressing, which is something approximating "how can human beings deal with the current onslaught of email?"

I find it more interesting to see what my "high performance / lead user friends" are struggling with.  I’m an inbox zero guy (I go to bed every night with no emails in my inbox – where "no emails" is an approximation for "less than 30 and nothing urgent.")  I don’t save things in folders for a future response (I think that’s equivalent to deleting them) but I do put things on my task list when I need to remember to respond (my task list is never longer than something I can clear with an hour of focused effort.)  I regularly check my email throughout the day, but I don’t let it interfere with me when I need to concentrate on something and I’ve trained myself not to look at my handheld until I’m truly bored in a meeting.  I rarely go to the bathroom in the middle of a meal out with Amy to sneak a quick look at my email.  As a result, I don’t struggle with email – it’s just an efficient (and integral) part of my work communication.

A set of my friends are really struggling with it.  I commonly hear the "I’m way behind on email" refrain.  Several of my friends have deep disdain for email, including one who basically equates it to "homework" (hey – I liked doing homework!)  Another friend decided to take the summer off from using email (while I was happy to hear from him when he called me to thank me for doing something, it was at an inconvenient time and I thought he must have needed something urgently when I saw his name pop up on my phone.) 

When I sit on an airplane next to someone doing email, I like to observe their pattern as I drift off to sleep (watching them helps me fall asleep faster.)  A remarkable number of people have a "hunt, click, read, and then don’t respond" approach to email where they read messages that they selectively choose to read but then don’t respond or delete, resulting in yet another "read" message clogging up their inbox.  These people clearly need a lesson in processing their email.

I’ve got a long list of additional examples, but you get the idea.  There is a deep sociological thing going on.  A decade ago email was lauded as the savior of business communication.  Today, it’s a giant pain in the ass for many people, although it’d be interesting to see how they’d cope without it.  The fact that it’s popping up in the weekend NY Times reinforces that the problem is continuing to build toward a tipping point, which reminds me that there is a big opportunity out there somewhere. 

BTW – can someone tell the NY Times that it’s ok to use "email" instead of "E-mail" – even Wikipedia says so.

  • richbradshaw

    I work slightly differently – I read everything as it comes in, then either leave it, respond or star it. I don't delete, and just keep everything in my inbox, but marked as read. (This is in Gmail)

    I filter out emails from websites or mailing lists, and label them with the website name or category. If they are things I'll never read, then I mark them as read. (Freecycle for instance generates 100s of emails a day)

    To be fair though, I don't really use email to communicate with most people – I don't use IM either. Facebook for quick messages to friends, twitter + friendfeed for more general conversations and my blog for an even more general conversation.

    I tend to use email for things I would have written a letter for in the olden days.

  • http://www.emaildashboard.com Deva Hazarika

    I believe the number one answer is simply lack of discipline. Number two is not having a viable system/approach to process email. I adopted an approach similar to what you describe a couple of years ago and email stopped being a problem, even after taking a 3-week vacation. I wrote about email discipline a couple of years ago: http://www.emaildashboard.com/2006/09/email_disci

  • Cory Levy

    How much time were you using on email? I spend about an hour a day solely on email.

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      It varies. Usually a couple of hours throughout the day. Email is my main communication nerve center.

  • Bill

    Funny you mention this. NPR is covering this very subject all this week on Morning Edition. Here is the text for tomorrow's (Monday's), early:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?stor

    Supposedly there will be different email-related stories every day this week.

  • http://www.webomatica.com/wordpress/ Webomatica

    I think the big problem is prioritization. I fall into the trap of reading an email, deciding I'll respond later, and then forgetting about it / letting it sit too long. But there is simply no way to answer every email as soon as it comes in – you can't do it serially or you'd never get anywhere.

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      Re: no way to answer every email as soon as it comes in: I've been doing this for years and manage to keep my inbox empty (there's nothing in it right now). There are a lot of subtle things involved in this – I think I'll write a separate post describing in detail how I do it since it's such a common problem (and misconception) that you simply can't keep your inbox empty.

  • http://www.intela.com Jim – Intela

    I also leave everything in my inbox so I can search it when needed. Email for me is also a main method of communication. Along with IM/SMS/PIN. Everyone I am in business with owns a blackberry or email device which they use to respond quickly to most inquires.

    My problem is that many emails require a good deal of work or thought to reply to so I often pass and dont get back til much later if at all. Often I store it in my memory bank and just address it personally (leaving inbox unfortunately). Email sometimes lends itself to ranting so its often better to bring up subjects in meetings / face to face conversation.

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      For the emails that require more than a few minutes, I move them to my task list and then process them when I have an uninterrupted chunk of time. This way I've queued up a series of emails that I need to concentrate on and subsequently give them the right level of concentration, rather than having them scattered throughout my inbox.

  • http://www.2-speed.com Will

    I don't get it. To me, email is the phone without most of its time dependencies. I get two major things out of email. 1. it's polling rather than interrupt-driven – I get to deal with it when *I* want to and, 2. because there is more overhead for the sender, messages are generally more concise and thought out.

    Being inundated with email is generally a result of being too responsive to senders of email. Ratchet back on your responses and people will be less inclined to send more.

    In the end, I'd rather be getting too much email than too many phone calls.

  • http://www.derekscruggs.com Derek Scruggs

    I follow the GTD two-minute rule for inbox processing and find that that handles about 90% of my email. Mailing lists go to a gmail account, which is better at reading threaded stuff. I'm ruthless about deleting. Some things I keep in a couple of reference folders and a waiting for folder (again per GTD), but I've found that most things can be deleted safely. Important stuff has an amazing ability to find you again.

    I generally end my day with from 1-5 emails in it. Before I started GTD five years ago I was a mess, but since then email has not been an issue for me.

  • http://www.defragcon.com eric norlin

    I'm stumbling badly through some thoughts around this:
    http://defragcon.com/Blog/?p=235

  • Elaine Ellis

    The New York Times uses e-mail instead of email because it's Associated Press style. A lot of publications will also use Web site instead of website since that's AP style as well. It's a journalist thing so to speak…

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      Time to fix the AP. Oh wait, they seem to be doing a good job of that themselves lately. Or not.

  • Venkat Ram

    I guess the smart guys at Google, Microsoft are also trying to figure out a solution to this problem..recently I came across this working group on what they call “reducing information overload” http://www.iorgforum.org/index.htm
    they r looking at various ways to increasing productivity

  • http://friendfeed.com/kaz Adam Kazwell

    “A remarkable number of people have a “hunt, click, read, and then don't respond” approach to email where they read messages that they selectively choose to read but then don't respond or delete, resulting in yet another “read” message clogging up their inbox. These people clearly need a lesson in processing their email.”

  • http://friendfeed.com/j1m j1m

    “I don't save things in folders for a future response (I think that's equivalent to deleting them)” He he. I just started doing that for the first time a few weeks ago (and so far, yes, it seems to be)

  • http://www.crashutah.com/blog John Lynn

    I do the same as you. I either respond or only keep a couple of emails in my inbox which are things I need to work on.

    I think there's one other factor which you didn't address. People are bad at telling people no or to stop bothering them. Sure, this can be done in a polite way, but if people just made decisions quicker and were honest with themselves and their time, then they wouldn't have this problem. Plus, some of us just enjoy telling people to bug off if that's what they deserve.

  • Rob Freeborn

    This thread made me think about something I read a few years ago – “Managing Incoming Email”, a .pdf by Mark Hurst.

    Here's a link to his page, the .pdf I noted is 4th on the list

    http://www.creativegood.com/team/mark.html

    r.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/richbradsh52001 richbradsh52001

    I work slightly differently – I read everything as it comes in, then either leave it, respond or star it. I don't delete, and just keep everything in my inbox, but marked as read. (This is in Gmail)

    I filter out emails from websites or mailing lists, and label them with the website name or category. If they are things I'll never read, then I mark them as read. (Freecycle for instance generates 100s of emails a day)

    To be fair though, I don't really use email to communicate with most people – I don't use IM either. Facebook for quick messages to friends, twitter + friendfeed for more general conversations and my blog for an even more general conversation.

    I tend to use email for things I would have written a letter for in the olden days.

  • Bill

    Funny you mention this. NPR is covering this very subject all this week on Morning Edition. Here is the text for tomorrow's (Monday's), early:

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?stor

    Supposedly there will be different email-related stories every day this week.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/deva_hazari2084 deva_hazari2084

    I believe the number one answer is simply lack of discipline. Number two is not having a viable system/approach to process email. I adopted an approach similar to what you describe a couple of years ago and email stopped being a problem, even after taking a 3-week vacation. I wrote about email discipline a couple of years ago: http://www.emaildashboard.com/2006/09/email_disci

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    It varies. Usually a couple of hours throughout the day. Email is my main communication nerve center.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Re: no way to answer every email as soon as it comes in: I've been doing this for years and manage to keep my inbox empty (there's nothing in it right now). There are a lot of subtle things involved in this – I think I'll write a separate post describing in detail how I do it since it's such a common problem (and misconception) that you simply can't keep your inbox empty.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    For the emails that require more than a few minutes, I move them to my task list and then process them when I have an uninterrupted chunk of time. This way I've queued up a series of emails that I need to concentrate on and subsequently give them the right level of concentration, rather than having them scattered throughout my inbox.

  • Webomatica

    I think the big problem is prioritization. I fall into the trap of reading an email, deciding I'll respond later, and then forgetting about it / letting it sit too long. But there is simply no way to answer every email as soon as it comes in – you can't do it serially or you'd never get anywhere.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/derek_scrug1878 derek_scrug1878

    I follow the GTD two-minute rule for inbox processing and find that that handles about 90% of my email. Mailing lists go to a gmail account, which is better at reading threaded stuff. I'm ruthless about deleting. Some things I keep in a couple of reference folders and a waiting for folder (again per GTD), but I've found that most things can be deleted safely. Important stuff has an amazing ability to find you again.

    I generally end my day with from 1-5 emails in it. Before I started GTD five years ago I was a mess, but since then email has not been an issue for me.

  • Will

    I don't get it. To me, email is the phone without most of its time dependencies. I get two major things out of email. 1. it's polling rather than interrupt-driven – I get to deal with it when *I* want to and, 2. because there is more overhead for the sender, messages are generally more concise and thought out.

    Being inundated with email is generally a result of being too responsive to senders of email. Ratchet back on your responses and people will be less inclined to send more.

    In the end, I'd rather be getting too much email than too many phone calls.

  • Elaine Ellis

    The New York Times uses e-mail instead of email because it's Associated Press style. A lot of publications will also use Web site instead of website since that's AP style as well. It's a journalist thing so to speak…

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/venkat_ram53711 venkat_ram53711

    I guess the smart guys at Google, Microsoft are also trying to figure out a solution to this problem..recently I came across this working group on what they call "reducing information overload" http://www.iorgforum.org/index.htm
    they r looking at various ways to increasing productivity

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/cory_levy5453 cory_levy5453

    How much time were you using on email? I spend about an hour a day solely on email.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jim122 jim122

    I also leave everything in my inbox so I can search it when needed. Email for me is also a main method of communication. Along with IM/SMS/PIN. Everyone I am in business with owns a blackberry or email device which they use to respond quickly to most inquires.

    My problem is that many emails require a good deal of work or thought to reply to so I often pass and dont get back til much later if at all. Often I store it in my memory bank and just address it personally (leaving inbox unfortunately). Email sometimes lends itself to ranting so its often better to bring up subjects in meetings / face to face conversation.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Time to fix the AP. Oh wait, they seem to be doing a good job of that themselves lately. Or not.

  • eric norlin

    I'm stumbling badly through some thoughts around this:
    http://defragcon.com/Blog/?p=235

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/kyle_s10731 kyle_s10731

    That's not the only thing the AP has been screwing up recently – now they want to charge $12.50 if you quote more than four words of one of their stories:

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20080617/0740561

  • John Lynn

    I do the same as you. I either respond or only keep a couple of emails in my inbox which are things I need to work on.

    I think there's one other factor which you didn't address. People are bad at telling people no or to stop bothering them. Sure, this can be done in a polite way, but if people just made decisions quicker and were honest with themselves and their time, then they wouldn't have this problem. Plus, some of us just enjoy telling people to bug off if that's what they deserve.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/rob_freebor8945 rob_freebor8945

    This thread made me think about something I read a few years ago – "Managing Incoming Email", a .pdf by Mark Hurst.

    Here's a link to his page, the .pdf I noted is 4th on the list

    http://www.creativegood.com/team/mark.html

    r.

  • julian

    I find email useful for work, setting up inital contact with people, and keeping in touch with long distance friends. BUT I find it intolerable that people in the same town use email as their only way of communicating with me. It is as if people forget to pick up the phone and have a conversation and do not realize that some of us work 18 hours per day on the computer. So as of recently I have begun to tell friends living locally that email is no more a viable option. I find it very frustrating to chit chat, sort of make pans (only to have them unmade six times as the other ponders "should I go to the movie or dinner with my friend… or maybe I will change my mind again." Internet, socially and locally, has become a way of of not making decisions and ultimately, of never making commitments to friendships and eliding other people's time.

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  • dorothy steinocher

    why doesn't my printing go all the way to the right side of page when I send an email. It looks like it does until I send it then it's likea half page across?

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