Is Your Email Inbox Killing You?

After I missed a few critical email messages recently, I spent a good part of today simply trying to get my email inbox under control. Over the past decade, the “email problem” has slowly grown into an unmanageable beast. I looked at my work inbox today (this isn’t even counting my personal email accounts) and noticed I had over 18,000 emails in the Inbox alone, with over 3000 marked unread (and I file and filter even more than that). Ouch. Staying ahead of email, responding to one as several more come in, has become a Sisyphean task. Quite simply, email is failing us. The system hasn’t scaled with the volume and variety of communication we deal with today.

I’m obviously not alone in reaching this massive point of failure in the email system:

This initial blessing has become a curse, as with many technology solutions. In some ways it reminds me of music CDs. When digital music on CD first came out consumers were thrilled, and they should have been. CDs were a huge improvement over cassette tapes. But, much like email, CDs simply didn’t scale. It might be fine for a person with a moderate music library to have dozens of CDs. But, for heavy music lovers, having hundreds or thousands of CDs was ridiculous. Finally, along came MP3 players and the beloved iPod. Now, you can fairly easily manage a music library that scales.

So, what to do about email? There are many, many people offering a host of tips, tricks, and tools for supposedly managing your email. Yes, I know all about filters and autoresponders and etc., etc. Have tried them all, used them all. Too much work. Some recommend time management strategies. For example, Timothy Ferriss’ tip that you should only check email twice a day. Good tip for not letting email addiction fragment and destroy the rest of your day. But, still doesn’t solve the massive volume problem.

One approach is already in play: Big changes in how existing email applications work. At CES this year, Jerry Yang showed the future of a smarter email inbox that could prioritize the most relevant connections in your life. Leveraging the knowledge of who you care about and interact with the most holds promise for making all of your communications easier to manage (email, IM, SMS, file sharing, etc.). Xobni is yet another solution promising to enhance your existing Outlook email application to give you “effortless email management”.

I’m sure that these approaches will make email better. No doubt about that. But, who is going to come along and “iPod” the whole thing? Give us a whole new way to manage our communications with others? That is what I’m looking forward to.


  1. marshaegan on March 6, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    And you’re not alone! With the amount of email increasing every year, this problem isn’t going away either. Here’s one idea that seems to work:

    Differentiate between “sorting” and “working” your email. Go in only a few times a day with the idea that you’re SORTING. And after you look at each email, make sure it goes somewhere else — the trash, a reference folder, or a folder where you hold all the stuff that requires action. But get it outa the inbox!

    Then go into those action folders when you’re planning your day, and choose what is most important.

    By not having stuff in your inbox, you can avoid the stress that comes with looking at EVERYthing you’ve gotta get done. And with as many as you have right now, you might even want to set up a temp folder, throw them all in there, so you can start clean without declaring email bankruptcy.

  2. markhurst on June 17, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Hi Larry – I agree, it’s an important problem to solve… I’m not sure Michael Arrington has it right, though. See a geek who can’t use email for more thoughts.

    (Also my book – )

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