I found a recent Harvard Business Review blog post on email overload to be fascinating and instructional on three levels: what it actually says, what everyone else commented, and the similarity of comments on any email overload thread.
Starting at the basic level, the content of the article itself is fine. It points to many other articles and books in making some basic points about email, particularly from a productivity, hygiene, and etiquette point of view.
On a second level, being an HBR blog means it got lots of comments. Reading through the 51(as of this time) comments shows how social media can help round out any story. It doesn’t matter how good or complete the original article was since commenters will fill in the gaps. One could even subversively argue you should intentionally leave gaps for commenters to fill if you value traffic. There’s nothing like leaving out a few obvious suggestions (or repeating a commonly debunked perception) to fuel the commenting fire!
Abstracting out the comments yields these tidbits:
- Explore your email reader’s tools (rules, folders, turning off toasts, sorting)
- New employees should explicitly learn about the company’s email etiquette
- Email is a dinosaur – use other tools (in addition to email)
- Learn about experiments (real and thought experiments) in turning off email
- Address expectations people have about responsiveness
- It’s a bigger problem than just email – it’s how we communicate
The third level is most interesting to me: how crowdsourcing email overload ideas from any bright group will probably yield the same set of tips/answers/thoughts. If you wrote a blog post in The Economist, NY Times, or a dozen other similar places, I’ll bet the first 50 comments by totally different folks would quickly tick off the same set of comments you see here. What does that mean? It means we all know the answers already but the problem persists.
Since email overload is a awareness, discipline, and culture issue, there’s only so much advice to go around. Awareness is the easiest to address, and that’s what articles like the HBR blog post do. Getting this awareness to result in some new discipline is difficult to get going and even more difficult to sustain. And getting culture to change through sustained discipline by many people in the same email send/receive circles is tougher yet. The mere fact that the solutions are already known by most any large group of emailers, but the problems persist, shows that a set of tips and tricks is not enough.