How to Unshackle Yourself from E-mail

How to Unshackle Yourself from E-mail

On this Harvard Business Review blog this morning, Daniel Markovitz, wrote a piece titled: How to Break Free from Email Jail.

I appreciate Daniel’s manufacturing analogy of creating a pull system for information.  His designs make sense. However, what Daniel doesn’t acknowledge is that outside of manufacturing, most organizations don’t run like manufacturing floors. That is the premise of my book Management by Design. A manufacturing operation is designed. I’ve been involved in the detailed processes of creating work routes, programming pick-and-place machines, pulling parts from random-sectionalized warehouses, and developing factory floor layouts. Most of the work that is done outside of the factory isn’t designed at all. It just happens as an emergent set of behaviors. One of the main reasons we can’t break from the “Email Jail” is because e-mail is so good at helping feed our dysfunction.

Like many people on occasion, I have taken it upon myself to own my information environment. Clean up my e-mail and follow one of the dozens of books on how to better manage your life. Life, however, then intervenes, and all of those good intentions disappear in a rash of happenstance unforeseen when committing to taking control.

Have you heard these?

  • The client wanted to communicate in a different way.
  • I got so overwhelmed with the project, something had to give, and that was information management.

I find those two excuses cover many of the sins associated with abandoning the good intensions for managing information.

In order to move from push to pull the organization has to think about its world in a fundamentally different way. Manufacturers took a long time to accomplish this, and they have a very limited domain to work with. Most other functions within the organization don’t want to, or have the need to, redesign themselves. It isn’t that the pull model for information is wrong, but that idea must overcome the momentum of current systems. Unlike manufacturing, where competitive pressures insisted on a new approach, the back office seldom comes under such pressures, nor does it become the focus on comparative benchmarking. So it just continues on, with incremental improvements making life a bit more efficient while the majority of inefficiencies are tolerated, if not endeared.

Another issue that Daniel missed comes from the technology itself. With search engines to index all of your mail, and tools like xobni (note: no longer in business) to index and consolidate all of your contacts, and huge disk allocations to store your messages, you don’t need to manage mail anymore. If you keep doing what you are doing: cheery picking the important mail and letting all of the rest of it ride, nothing is going to happen. You aren’t going to reach an account storage limit, and if you missed something, you are far more likely to find it if you don’t delete it than if you do (Google’s Gmail, for instance, archives rather than deletes.)

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. I have personally felt the burden of my inbox as a near physical manifestation, a weight, so-to-speak, on my shoulders. But I put that weight there, not the people sending me messages, not even the automatons filling my inbox with useless drivel.  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.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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