A health editor at the Atlantic has proposed a simple but possibly brilliant solution to our daily torrent of e-mail: a "cool" button that would function much like the star-shaped "favourite" button does on Twitter, or the thumbs-up "like" button on Facebook.
Likening incoming e-mails to a "homework assignment," James Hamblin argues that a similar feature would do wonders for our inboxes, saving people from actually having to respond with cleverly crafted replies. A "cool" button would acknowledge receipt of the e-mail and as a bonus, stroke the e-mail sender's ego, all while saving precious time. Since stars and thumbs-up signs are taken, Hamblin proposes a logo that incorporates the hand gesture typically used to signify "ok."
"You just 'cool' things," Hamblin said in the Atlantic.com video. "In real life we have a thing called laughing or smiling and nodding. Sometimes you just want to acknowledge right away, 'I got your e-mail, I loved it, at some point in the future I'll write you back. Can't do it right now."
Although that part makes "cooling" sound more like e-mail procrastination than solution, Hamblin's proposal isn't the first attempt to rethink the ball and chain of e-mail.
There have long been inbox etiquette rules: avoiding "reply all" messaging or popping "NRN" ("no reply necessary") or "NNTR" ("no need to respond") in the subject line. But these tricks rely on the recipient knowing the lingo.
In 2011, TED curator Chris Anderson drafted an "E-mail Charter" in response to "widespread acknowledgement that e-mail is getting out of hand for many people." Here, Anderson proposed 10 rules to "reverse the e-mail spiral." Some of them were practical, like ceasing and desisting with contentless e-mails like "Great." Other rules were more philosophical, like respecting recipients' time: "As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your e-mail will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending," read the Charter.
"We all love the power of e-mail connecting people across continents. But we're drowning in it," Anderson wrote. "Every year it gets a little worse. To the point where we can get trapped spending most of our working week simply handling the contents of our in-boxes. And in doing so, we're making the problem worse. Every reply, every cc, creates new work for our friends and colleagues."
As productivity takes a hit, corporate efforts to tame the inbox are emerging. Some companies ban reply all e-mails and e-mail jokes; others issue strict moratoriums on e-mailing during holidays.
Problematically, most of us haven't figured out how to "do e-mail" better since the technology's inception. The worst e-mail users treat other people's inboxes as a dumping ground for their own to-do lists. A well-circulated and somewhat depressing study from England's Loughborough University found that it takes 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after e-mail interrupts it. For people who compulsively check it every five minutes – and that's many of us – this amounts to 8.5 hours a week wasted on zoning out.
"You need to have these walls and you need to find ways to honour where your time and attention go. And there's probably no better way to have your time burgled than by not having a healthy relationship with your e-mail," San Francisco writer Merlin Mann said during his 2007 Google Tech Talk, "Inbox Zero."
"There's no end to how much people can ask of your time and your attention," said Mann. "You're ultimately the one who's going to have to make decisions about how your attention and your time map to the actions in your life."
Maybe it's time to cool off the inbox.