The Inbox of Our Lives

The diabolization of email has to stop. Hear me stamping my tiny foot.


We, the worldly, have learned to discard postal direct mail unopened. It would seem like email is heading in the same direction. It is castigated at every turn. Various fixes clamor for our attention. identifies the core problem as email subscriptions and offers to bunch them for you in a set of categories; its modest claim: "one click and end email overload forever." Five (or 4, 3 or 2) Sentences invites you to take the vows of an email ascetic, limiting all your responses to the specified number of sentences and inveighing all your correspondents to do the same. Merlin Mann of has built a brand on the foundation of "Inbox Zero." ("It's about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life.") And then there's my personal fave, the TL;dr addition to Internet slang.

But email isn't the problem. My colleague of many years, Marnie Webb, made that clear for me when she critiqued a first version of this post by sharing with me her composite inbox:

Three email accounts - two work and one personal. I have variants of the personal that are geek user friendly so that I can quickly segment any email that comes from my daughter's school etc. What I've done is used my tech expertise to subdivide my inbox as part of making it manageable.

Voicemail - which I hate above all else because it takes time to listen to a voicemail.

Text messaging - with which I now arrange the time I spend with my closest friends and family.

Twitter - the public stuff but also the Dms.

Facebook - the public stuff and everything else.

Tumblr - via the notifications.

Instagram - again with the notifications.

Basecamp - where I see what my team is up to and where we put most project based messages.

Highrise - which is our CRM and lets me see all the email and conversations, more or less, I'm not on directly.

In this Babelesque configuration, email does stand out unpleasantly for Marnie, but she also gives it its due.

I get work messages in all of those channels. Email is the longest. It takes the most from me to respond. It's the channel that holds the greatest complexity. And why is it complex? Because it's a place that we put the things that require thought. It's a place to think about more than the next to-do, the next meeting, the cute-ism we want to share. It's a place where we can struggle with ideas. And in a world full of 'if it's great you condense it' (that spans from Twitter to TED -- and there's been a lot on the Ted-if-ication of ideas), email is the place we try to get our minds around the unruly. So of course it's harder than the others.

It seems to me that email is merely emblematic of the sensory conundrum associated with being alive right now.

Email is often associated with the workplace and many bosses still have bossy expectations of their subordinates being on call -- at the other end of an email just as if they were at the other end of a phone line. Of course, workers have not been relieved of their traditional responsibility: to get things done. Email is increasingly a tool for needed communications toward this goal as well, along with intranets, meetings, phone calls, corridor chats and so forth. But to many workers the tools get in each other's way and the time to actually 'do' has disappeared. Email appears to be the smoking gun.

But on the other hand, we want the good stuff. In the early 1980's when email was just raising its pointy head aboveground, most people -- even 'white collar' people -- worked at jobs that began at a certain time and ended at a certain time and at which the 'terms of engagement' were determined by fiat from those in charge, conveyed in memos or one-to-many meetings.

A huge change since then is that a huge swath of people in the middle have become constructively engaged in their employment context.

People in the middle can now influence organizational behavior -- trivial and consequential -- on levels that would have been unimaginable even 15 years ago. In the process, they form bonds and discover commonalities worth nurturing, at work and off. Analogously, intelligent management recognizes that engaged employees are better employees, so there is more sharing of information that was previously held close. There is a discourse in the white collar workplace that never existed before.

But the demand for getting things done hasn't disappeared.

And all kinds of non-work-related inputs have increased by orders of magnitude.

So there is discourse and there is productivity and there is social media and there is life outside work and it adds up to high anxiety. The discourse -- the workplace engagement -- can be shunted from email to intranets, but the bad boys -- too much input and not enough time -- are in town to stay. Email is just a small-time thug in comparison.

What is to be done?

First, we have to eschew pre-lapsarian notions of a simpler, better time. One email-lambasting friend said,

In Brazil or India, where we trust what people say, we just pick up the phone and call people to clarify points, ask for suggestions, and we quickly get the answer and things are done. I encourage my colleagues to leave me a quick message on Skype or just call my number when they need a quick answer. I think in the U.S. everybody needs to write to make it clear and avoid any kind of misunderstanding, so there is the culture of writing things and not talking about them.

But that won't work. It just moves around the deck chairs on the Titanic -- which is the big inbox of our 2013 lives.

What might work is thinking about that big inbox. We are living in a world well described in Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff. The quantity and immediacy of Information flow have increased exponentially; our brains have remained brain-sized. So we are trying to compress all input to fit: 3 Things that Successful People do in 4 minutes to Solve 2 Giganormous Problems. Nuance is the first casualty. And in return we get... what exactly? A hydra-headed inbox that we can rarely consume and never digest.

It's not about email.