Email & the unwillingness to make decisions

I was just on Reddit looking through some links when I came across TNW’s post about a “‘frighteningly ambitious’ way to improve email”.

Save for the dramatic headline, you see posts about improving email management all the time. Indeed, the writer was inspired by Paul Graham’s list of startup ideas, so attempting to change email is certainly not new. But why do we keep seeing these posts go up? Is there still no solution to an overflowing inbox?

In my opinion, there already is. It’s not ideal, and I believe there eventually needs to be a replacement to email with ambitions the size of ill-fated Google Wave. But let me return to the TNW article first.

Inbox Pro

TNW’s proposed solution is not ideal, in my opinion. You can read the description in the article, but in short “Inbox Pro” (the name of the suggested solution) seeks to “bring structure to email” by sending out more email. Whenever an email is received by person A from person B, Inbox Pro sends person B an email back asking them to categorize what kind of email it is – does it require a long or short response? The email also includes stats on how quickly person A usually responds to emails of different types. After a certain date, another email is sent if person A still hasn’t responded to you, rubbing in the fact that you’re not going to get a response and your email isn’t important enough. That person can then choose more options on how to bug person A, again by replying to the email.

To me, this causes more problems than it fixes. If you are the only person using this system, it’s great: you’re essentially getting other people to organize your email for you. That sounds like a sweet deal, but how many people will actually respond to these questions? If I got such an email from somebody right after I sent it to them, I would be very unlikely to respond. It’s not my job to organize your email because you don’t want to.

Additionally, this system doesn’t actually solve the key problem of too much email, it only shifts the burden from the recipient to the sender. To me, that doesn’t really seem like a fix. True, people who send the most email will now be penalized, but the total amount of work spent on email hasn’t decreased.

Inbox Zero

In my opinion, the best current alternative – Inbox Zero – works just fine if implemented correctly. The majority of those who have tried inbox zero and decided it does not work seem to describe it as a to-do list more than as an inbox management system. Indeed, the Inbox Pro site describes it as “[spending] the evening answering mail to finally reach Inbox Zero”; a high-profile article in the New Yorker specifically says it “treats my inbox like a to-do list”. I think that this approach is misguided, however. The original inbox zero methodology wasn’t to treat it as a to-do list, but rather to choose from one of five actions: delete, delegate, respond, defer, or do. Notice, do is last in that list.[1]

There are 4 other actions before ‘doing’, three of which handle the email so that you don’t have to deal with it again. Why don’t people utilize them more often before jumping to the last one? It’s much easier to archive/delete an email than trying to respond to it, so you’d think people would use it the most. Not so, apparently.

The Real Problem

I believe that the real problem in email isn’t that we can’t get control of it, but rather that we are unwilling to make quick decisions based on it. There’s nothing inherently ominous about email. What scares us is the amount of time and effort making a decision on each email requires. When we let our inbox overflow, we’re really just procrastinating (which never helps). Eventually, we’re going to have to handle important issues raised through email.

The counter-argument to this is that not all email is urgent/important and much of it doesn’t warrant a response.[2] This is absolutely true, but pose yourself this question: how long does that decision take to make? In other words, how quickly can you ascertain if a specific email in your inbox merits a response or not? For me, it is usually 1-2 seconds. Remember, I’m no talking about actually responding or doing anything at this point; I’m simply categorizing email as important vs. unimportant. In fact, many of us are already utilizing this: Google’s Priority Inbox and Apple’s VIP Mailbox both try to make this decision for you algorithmically.

But does categorizing email really take an “entire evening”? It shouldn’t, unless you’re getting thousands of emails per day (if so, unsubscribe from those newsletters; it rarely takes more than 10 seconds). E-mails that require action are eventually going to take your attention away anyway, because someone will either call you about the issue or contact you in other ways. E-mail that isn’t important can be taken care of in literally seconds, and it will never bother you again.

E-mail is unique from other avenues of contact in the sense that the recipient gets to decide on when the reply – a call or in-person meeting doesn’t afford this kind of flexibility because the sender is deciding when they interrupt your work. Why would you let someone interrupt you and take away at least half an hour from your usable time when they are giving you the opportunity to respond to them at your convenience?


  • [1] In fact, Merlin Mann specifically tells you not to treat your inbox as a to-do list in the original video.
  • [2] With email filters and a bit of effort, you can reduce the number of these that actually reach you by a substantial amount before even processing anything.