How To Keep Email From Driving You Crazy

Never mind spam. How are we supposed to deal with the rest of our email?
Union Square Ventures venture capitalist Fred Wilson writes that he finds social networking preferable for a lot of casual communication and that email should be whittled down to only the essential communications where it makes sense. Email remains "a truly private channel and is more suitable for long-form serious private conversations," he concludes.

Productivity expert Daniel Markovitz writes on the Harvard Business Review blog that email is fundamentally broken. He frames the improvement offered by the pull model of social communication, as opposed to the pushy nature of email, as something like the breakthrough offered by lean manufacturing--pulling in just the information you need, somewhat like a lean factory pulls in just the parts and materials it needs, as it needs them.

On the other hand, Daniel Rasmus, an expert on new ways for businesses to organize themselves (and often a speaker at UBM's E2 conferences), counters that the evils of email are overblown. "We must all ask ourselves the question of value then: 'Is managing e-mail really worthy of my time?' I would propose that with today's technology the issue is more about psychology than about managing the information," he writes. In other words, spam filters have gotten good enough to filter out most of the outright crap, and much of what weighs down our inboxes, like newsletter subscriptions, we put there ourselves. "I can unsubscribe, I can write rules. But like many people, I choose to concentrate on creating value rather than mitigating a problem that is becoming less of a problem every day," Rasmus says.

If you're ready to accept the proposition that what we need to do is get better at managing the overload, with the power of our minds as much as of our software, check out the interview with productivity expert David Allen by James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly. Allen is the creator of the Getting Things Done methodology for clearing away the clutter in your life.

"Information overload is not the issue. If it were, you'd walk into the library and die. As soon as you connected to the Web, you'd just explode," Allen says in the transcript. A walk in the woods subjects you to more information overload than scanning your inbox, "but the meaningful things in nature are relatively few--berries, bears and snakes, thunderstorms, maybe poison oak. There are only a few things in nature that force me to change behavior or make a decision. The problem with e-mail is that it's not just information; it's the need for potential action. It's the berries and snakes and bears, but they're embedded, and you don't know what's in each one."

"Not only that, but e-mail has a trait that fits the core of addictive behavior, which is random positive reinforcement," Allen adds. You scan your email compulsively because sometimes it pays off--even though most of the time it does not. Software may be able to help you identify the messages that deserve priority attention, but it's still up to you to set the priorities.

A few of what SaneBox categorized as my "unimportant emails."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)