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To keep e-mail under control, have a ‘later’ file for less important e-mails. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
To keep e-mail under control, have a ‘later’ file for less important e-mails. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Why e-mail is broken Add to ...

There was an almighty ruckus earlier this year, when a clever new e-mail app for the iPhone came out. The makers of Mailbox had done all the right things to stoke the hype machine: The previews looked slick, and a waiting list for access quickly ballooned. And iPhone fans certainly do love a lineup.

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Still, the very fact that an e-mail application—hooray, an e-mail app!—caused a stir is telling. E-mail is so irredeemably broken that any app promising a real improvement has a shot at stardom. Consider this: The average worker spends 28% of their workweek—about 13 hours, based on a 46-hour week—dealing with e-mail, according to McKinsey Global. That’s 70-odd workdays a year. And that doesn’t even count all the times we check e-mail off the clock or, for that matter, the volume of messages that reach us through “social” services like Facebook and Twitter.

Stats like these would bug me less if I felt that this time was spent actually communicating. Rather, as Gentry Underwood, the man

behind Mailbox, is fond of saying, e-mail is really a kind of grim to-do list. The sound of an e-mail ping is the sound of somebody wanting you to do something, even if it’s just to slog through the salutations, pleasantries and compulsive best wishes to simply acknowledge that you got the note in the first place.

The way e-mail is designed exacerbates the problem. Most e-mail programs simply keep track of which messages you have and haven’t read—not which ones you’ve actually taken action on (beyond tiny flags for those you’ve replied to and forwarded). Unless you manage to flag or file each message before something distracts you, they will scroll off the bottom of the page, where you are guaranteed to remember them only at inopportune moments and, inevitably, much too late.

Fixing this system isn’t easy. Since e-mail, like the Internet, operates on a vast, decentralized standard, no single developer can rewrite the rules. Google has continually tweaked Gmail’s interface to help better organize mail as it comes in, but there’s only so much one company can do on the open Internet.

Where technology has failed, a whole movement of self-disciplinarians has sprung up. “Inbox Zero” practitioners, as they are called, believe in either dealing with or disposing of e-mails as soon as they arrive. Their goal is to keep the inbox perpetually empty, achieving the Zen state of Inbox Zero, in which the conscience is untroubled by lost or forgotten messages.

I’m not predisposed to self-discipline, but apps like Mailbox have made me a convert. The moment you install Mailbox, it asks to forcibly empty your inbox by archiving everything neatly in a separate folder. Then it helps to dispense with new arrivals. A neat swiping interface encourages you to either trash or file e-mails for information with a single stroke. Better still, the app lets you defer messages to be answered later—like a snooze button for your inbox.

Nice as it is, Mailbox remains a niche app, since it works only on Gmail accounts accessed through iPhones or iPads (an Android version is in the works). But the idea is compelling enough to have spawned competitors with names like MailPilot and EvoMail.

This is good stuff. But it doesn’t help with the problem of splintered inboxes. After a decade kicking around the Internet, the average user has accumulated a work e-mail, a personal e-mail, an e-mail from seven years ago that they never check any more, a phone for text messaging, a Facebook account for Facebook messaging and, in many cases, a Twitter account for sending catty private messages behind the backs of everyone else on Twitter.

Thriving, as they do, on things that go ping, social network creators treat interaction as a good thing. But even social messages demand answers: Dates to be made! Favours to be asked! Stray work requests from colleagues who thought that, since you’re logged in and they’re logged in, they’d send you a note via Facebook! An inbox is an inbox, and slapping the word “social” on it does nothing to prevent it from being a list of requests that people want you to respond to. (A friend recently bemoaned having trouble getting to “Snapchat Zero.” He was only half-joking.)

The standard solution here is the integrated inbox, where all your messages—whether e-mail, text or social media—appear under one interface. Many have tried; in fact, this was one of the ideas behind the BB10 operating system, whose warm reception totally failed to save BlackBerry. Apple has made steps in this direction, too—but these typically end at notifying users that new messages exist, period.

Simply lumping every inbox into a giant agglomeration of all your incoming communiqués isn’t a solution on its own. If e-mail is a grim to-do list, then we need tools that will help us determine when it’s safe to trash a message or forget about it altogether—the kind of tools that have made Mailbox a going concern. And these tools need to work for every kind of communication that comes our way. All messages are e-mail, and all e-mail is the enemy. It needs to be dealt with accordingly.

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