Skip to main content

Chris Anderson of TED speaks at the Disruptive Innovation Awards at The 2011 Tribeca Film Festival at Citibank Building On Greenwich on April 25, 2011 in New York City.Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

I'm on the cusp of inbox zero.

Save for 49 e-mails, my inbox sits empty. My sent folder is completely blank and pristine. The rest of my messages have been squirrelled away into appropriate file folders, or otherwise trashed in the delete bin of life.

I was inching toward nirvana until a colleague informed me that 49 e-mails is hardly empty: "A 'manageable' inbox to me is 10 messages or fewer," came her e-mail, into my inbox, now junked up with 50 messages.

Nothing like comparing inboxes to breed modern insecurity. In our war against e-mail, the torrent of poorly composed and misdirected missives that send our BlackBerrys pulsating an angry red, an empty inbox is highly coveted. And yet militantly policing one's messages can feel less like success than like failure: Is this what you truly want to do with your time, day in, day out? The vast increase in the e-mail we handle each day has meant that this technology that once seemed an essential instrument of productivity has become an instrument of daily torture.

As Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conferences, put it recently, e-mail is a "giant rats' nest of voracious demands on our time, energy and sanity."

In a valorous attempt to jolt us out of our bad habits and slash the rivers of unnecessary messages cluttering up our lives, Mr. Anderson last month drafted the Email Charter. His prescriptions include slashing surplus CC's, quashing bulky attachments and embracing acronyms such as NNTR - that's "no need to respond."

But at the core of the charter is a simpler message: respect the recipient.

"We're drowning in e-mail," Mr. Anderson wrote. "And the many hours we spend on it are generating ever more work for our friends and colleagues."

Mr. Anderson's voice is part of a chorus of techies and culture watchers eager to find ways to fix this dysfunctional medium. The crux of the problem, they say, is that most of us are still astonishingly bad at e-mail, a tool we presume we've perfected just as we rage against nearly everything that worms its way past our spam filters. These experts argue that e-mail, which is nearing two decades of popular use, will remain agonizing until we start shifting our expectations.

"Every day somebody's born who's going to send you a crappy e-mail in a few years. And unless you have some way to apply that charter in utero, I don't think you have a way [to avoid it]" quips Merlin Mann, a San Francisco writer and speaker who blogs at

Like others writing about e-mail culture, Mr. Mann has erected a Fort Knox-like system to cloak himself from would-be senders. To contact him, hopefuls must jump through a number of hoops; the experience is not unlike a job interview. If it's really urgent, Mr. Mann suggests calling 911.

"In my mind Inbox Zero does not mean how much e-mail's in your inbox. It's how much of your brain is in your inbox when you don't want it to be," he says.

While Mr. Mann is all for the Email Charter in theory, he isn't particularly hopeful about its effects: "Fixing e-mail's like fixing weather - hurricanes don't care that you support a 'rain charter,' " he tweeted after the document made the rounds.

Likening e-mail to the Wild West, Mr. Mann believes the real game changer may be speaking to the people who send you the most messages about doing it better, on both ends. Even so, he has his doubts: "The real problem of e-mail is people, and people are not a solvable problem."

When New York programmer Ray Tomlinson sent the first e-mail back in 1971, the test message was "entirely forgettable," something like "QWERTYUIOP," the top row of letters on a standard keyboard.

By the 1980s, Lotus, Microsoft and other companies allowed colleagues to e-mail through a shared server. In 1983, commercial MCI Mail was charging 45 cents per e-mail, each of which was limited to 500 characters. By the late nineties, e-mail had gone mainstream, further expedited by the .com boom in 2000.

Senior Microsoft researcher danah boyd, (who prefers that her name be written with all lower-case letters) signed on in 1993, when "e-mail was fun."

"It would be like, 'I got three e-mails today.' It was exciting. These were friends. E-mail lost that loveliness a long time ago," Ms. boyd says.

Today, she compares it to a hamster wheel. "E-mail is people wanting things from me," says the researcher, who receives approximately 700 e-mails daily.

When she goes on vacation, an out-of-office reply simply won't do. Instead, Ms. boyd goes on e-mail sabbaticals. These involve an elaborate nuking system that routes all messages to the trash and sends an "entertaining bounce message" that informs people they will have to resend their messages upon her return.

After Ms. boyd announced her first e-mail sabbatical ahead of a four-week trip to Thailand, she says, "People got so angry, they were so upset with me." (Interestingly, the most irate were individuals she didn't know.)

Livid strangers aside, the key seems to be clear and stern communication: Ms. boyd starts telling colleagues she's going on vacation six months in advance, and keeps a separate e-mail account handy for her near and dear; this she checks once every two days or so.

"It's really about communicating with people that I work with that there are limits."

Mr. Mann thinks she's in the right: "Do you have a door on your house? Well how dare you. It's really childlike to think having a door on your house makes you a dick."

For all of its intrusiveness, e-mail succeeds immensely as far as speed and archiving are concerned, says David Shipley, who co-authored SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better with Will Schwalbe.

"Repairing the e-mail world is lower on the list than a lot of other things in our universe that are in need of work, but it's actually one within the realm of possibility," says Mr. Shipley, who thinks we're actually getting better at it.

"More and more people are thinking about the e-mails they send," he says, while in the same breath acknowledging, "Maybe people write to you in a nicer way if you've written an e-mail book."

He believes people are sending fewer e-mails and doing more of their socializing on instant messaging, text message and social media. In his office, they're starting to get up and speak to each other again.

"I think the longer we do this, ideally, the better we'll get at it in the same way that people, when they were first using the telephone would say, 'Ahoy,' or speak in bizarre and stilted ways with each other," Mr. Shipley says.

For the authors, who revised the 2007 tome in 2010 when they realized massive, public e-mail bungles weren't going away, the motivating force was to create "a culture of mindfulness around e-mail."

"There's almost nothing more convenient than to send out idle e-mails, to use your BlackBerry as a Game Boy in a way," he says. "It's very easy to think that there's no effect to what you do on e-mail, and there is."

Mindfulness seems to be the buzzword in much of the dialogue, a kind of slow food movement for Internet nerds.

"The only tip is to be mindful of the fact that all of your time and attention is extremely limited," says Mr. Mann, who suggests people check their e-mail one third as often as they do now.

"If you are accepting input when you haven't made anything great with the input you've got, how does that scale? How does a year of that make your work better?"

Thomas Jackson, a senior lecturer of information science at Loughborough University, can vouch for the fact that it doesn't.

In one 2001 study, he found that employees reacted to 70 per cent of incoming e-mails within six seconds of their arrival. Dr. Jackson calls it "an addiction." Problematically, it took them 64 seconds to recover their train of thought after the interruption, a dismal stat considering numerous e-mails flowed in every five minutes.

"You have this to-do list that you haven't managed to shut down and it's still whirling around in your brain. You feel quite drained at the end of a day."

Or as Mr. Mann puts it: "I've never seen anybody look happy using a BlackBerry. They look like they're ruefully draining a wound."

While the condition of his own inbox changes from day to day, Mr. Mann admits easily that he doesn't respond to many of the messages he gets any more.

"I've accepted that it is rain."

Zosia Bielski is a reporter for Globe Life.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct