How We’re Working Just Isn’t Working

The problem isn’t e-mail. The problem is how we use it.


In Message Not Received, I devote an entire chapter to the perils and limitations of e-mail.

It wasn’t hard to write.

This may leave potential readers with the impression that I despise e-mail. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Hearing from a friend often puts a smile on my face. For someone like me, e-mail is a very valuable business tool. I’d even call it indispensable. Despite its limitations and the often-maddening insistence of so many people to ignore better collaboration tools, I for one could not work in a world without e-mail.

Let me make this as clear as possible:

The problem isn’t e-mail. The problem is how we use it.

One could write a long book about the sentiment behind those two pithy sentences. By no means do they only apply only to e-mail. In the technology world, there’s an oft-invoked axiom for this type of phenomenon: PICNIC. It stands for “problem in chair, not in computer.”

It’s easy to blame software applications for exacerbating business communication. For instance, Microsoft PowerPoint often takes a bad rap, but it’s a perfectly serviceable application. In fact, it is my presentation tool of choice. (I find its Presentation View to be exceptionally useful.) As much as we may like to criticize it, PowerPoint does not automatically generate dozens of inscrutable slides and force its users to read off of them. The problem lies in how people use it. Prezi, Keynote, and other presentation applications may offer different bells and whistles, but don’t change badly designed slides.

E-Mail’s Cross-Purposes

We have long since solved e-mail’s nascent problems: reliability, dependability, and interoperability. None of which alters the fact that e-mail remains a fundamentally limited medium, and sending more messages only exacerbates its limitations. Most germane here, an increase in the number of e-mails often enhances the extent to which employees feel overwhelmed. Employees frequently use their inboxes as catchalls for absolutely everything work-related and even some non-work purposes. In doing so, they conflate several often overlapping but fundamentally disparate types of communications, including:

When we cram everything into e-mail, it becomes less useful as a communications medium.

  • Group work-related messages (read: announcements)
  • Individual work-related messages
  • New and existing work-related projects, issues, and tasks
  • Comments to existing work-related projects, issues, and tasks
  • Important personal communications—e.g., messages from significant others

Simon Says: How We’re Working Just Isn’t Working

We’ve been conditioned to use our inboxes as de facto to-do lists for our professional and personal lives. As such, it’s entirely rational for us to check in frequently, if not constantly. This goes double during deadlines if employees fear for their jobs. How else are employees supposed to answer essential questions like:

  • What do I need to be doing right now?
  • What else do I need to do?
  • What’s the status of a current task, project, or issue?
  • Does my team, manager, or subordinates need anything else from me?
  • Are there any other problems of which I need to be aware?
  • What else needs fixing?
  • Is anything going on with my kids?

When we cram everything into e-mail, it becomes less useful as a communications medium.

I’ll have more to say on this subject over the next year. For now, don’t use you inbox to manage all aspects of your life. For now, I suggest adopting new tools to manage projects in Smartsheet, Asana, Trello, or something else. Keep track of your to-do list in Todoist or a comparable app. Send discrete messages via text or Snapchat. And move some of your conversations to the phone.


Originally published on Wired. Click here to read it there.

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