E-Mail Sins, Horror Stories and Strategies

Will Schwalbe's Web Site

Host Steve Inskeep talks to Will Schwalbe, co-author of Send: The Essential Guide to E-mail for Office and Home, about e-mail overload.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you're looking for somebody to blame for your overloaded inbox, you might consider the behavior of the recipient - that's you. And that's according to Will Schwalbe, who wrote a guide to email behavior.

Mr. SCHWALBE: A lot of the people who complain that they get way too many emails send way too many emails. They send vague emails, emails that are unnecessary; they send preachy emails or angry emails that cause huge ruckuses that have reverberations in their lives. And so we realized if you are more thoughtful about your own emailing, it's a lot easier to get your incoming under control.

INSKEEP: Are you blaming me for the 3,500 things in my inbox?

Mr. SCHWALBE: Not for all 3,500, but I bet you're responsible for five or six hundred of those. By making some adjustments in the way you email, you can cut your email incoming down by, oh, say, 25 percent. Our best tip is if every time you send an email that doesn't demand a response, you add: no reply necessary. The person probably won't reply, then you won't have to think, do I need to reply to that email, and they won't have to think, do I need to reply to that email, and on and on and on and on.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention one thing that I've discovered. By accident when I go away from email for a couple of days, many of the problems that are brought to my attention by email if I ignore them for a day or two, they might solve themselves.

Mr. SCHWALBE: That's absolutely right. And one of the things that we recommend too is a better use of the Auto Reply message. People set this when they go on holiday. They'll send a message saying I'm out of the office for three weeks in Caracas. But you can just set it to say I'm really busy at the moment and might not be able to get back to you.

One of the other things we discovered, too, is that expectation can be a terrible thing. So, if you always respond to every email you get in two or three minutes, you'll find that people expect you to respond in two or three minutes. And if you just make the effort, maybe six minutes one day, ten minutes the next, you will slow down people's expectations and they won't freak out if you haven't gotten right back to them.

INSKEEP: So, be worse in your customer service in order to keep things in line?

Mr. SCHWALBE: Just slow down ever so slightly.

INSKEEP: Will Schwalbe, thanks very much.

Mr. SCHWALBE: Thank you so much.

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INSKEEP: Will Schwalbe is co-author with David Shipley of the book "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home."

If you're feeling crushed by your inbox, you can discover more tips by going to NPR.org, where you can also tell us about your most embarrassing email episodes. Yes, you heard correctly; we just invited you to send us emails. Go on; tell us about the time you sent your boss a message intended for your spouse, or send us a message intended for your spouse - we'll post your best stories. And tomorrow we'll hear about a startup company that uses economics to help you decide which emails are worth reading.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Make It Stop! Crushed by Too Many E-Mails

Questions & Comments:

Do you have any embarrassing or annoying e-mail experiences? Let us know, and we'll pick the best — or worst — of the bunch and share them with you.

Worldwide E-mail Traffic

Messages Per Day

2008:       210 billion

2009:       247 billion

2010:       294 billion

2011:       349 billion

2012:       419 billion

 

SOURCE: The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm.

Netiquette Tips

Here, answers to the most modern communication problems that may help slim the size of your inbox.

E-mail is at risk of killing its own usefulness. Daily e-mail volume is now at 210 billion a day worldwide and increasing, according to The Radicati Group, a market research firm.

The burden of managing all that e-mail has prompted a backlash. One extreme reaction is "e-mail bankruptcy," where users throw up their hands and erase their entire inboxes. Many admit the distraction makes it near impossible to get work done, or even socialize normally.

Kelly Kirk, who works for a trade group in downtown Washington, D.C., says checking e-mail comes between her work and her personal life.

"I'm constantly ducking my head under tables during events to check my e-mail. I hid behind a tree once when my boyfriend said I wasn't allowed to check my BlackBerry," Kirk says. To get "real work" done, she says she now turns off the computer and her BlackBerry.

Companies are coming up with both behavioral and technical answers to the e-mail overload issue. Some major companies, like Intel, discourage the use of the "reply all" feature, which generates lots of extra mail. Other companies try to enforce "e-mail-free Fridays."

At Microsoft, people are turning to instant messaging — or the good old phone — according to Joel Cherkis, a manager working in the company's Reston, Va., offices. His e-mail program includes a feature that allows him to see whether co-workers are online. Color-coded dots signal availability: red for busy and green for online.

The phone or instant message cuts out lots of extra time exchanging messages, Cherkis says. That shift in behavior also trimmed e-mail traffic by about 20 percent, he estimates.

At the same time, companies are seeking ways to make the technology itself better at filtering what matters from what doesn't.

Yahoo, one of the biggest providers of Web-based mail, is trying to rethink its e-mail as a social network, according to John Kremer, vice president of Yahoo Mail. The idea is that since most of us e-mail only a handful of people regularly, e-mail systems should display those messages at the top of the inbox.

A startup called Xobni recently launched free software, which is based on a similar idea. The group's program works with Microsoft Outlook; every time you e-mail, it pulls up a profile of the person you're e-mailing, their contact information and previous e-mail conversations you had with that person.

"The problem we're trying to solve is the fact that people can't deal with all the information in their inboxes," said Xobni Vice President Gabor Cselle. "It might be very hard to remember what folder you stored that e-mail in or who sent you that message."

And, Cselle says, if e-mail doesn't provide its users a solution, it risks becoming less useful to those who rely on it.

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