Last week, I took a full week off for the first time in over a year. I wanted to completely unplug (like many of you, I'm often pulled into work in some form on weekends and holidays), so I disabled notifications from email and Twitter, the two biggest sources of work-related distractions on my iPhone.
After seven full days of email silence, I reactivated the notifications on my Outlook app, and the numbers were shocking:1,511 unread emails. 44 of those 1,511 emails were worth reading. Of those 44 emails, only five required a response.
It took me a good hour to catch up, and I wanted to barf by the end of it.
I'm usually really anal about keeping my inbox neat and tidy. I treat it as a to-do list of items I have to address in the shorter term, and it's not unusual to have fewer than 10 messages piled up at a time. As soon as an irrelevant message or piece of spam hits my inbox, I have my finger hovering over the delete key. Boom. Gone.
I almost never open an email sent to my work address unless it comes from someone I already know like a colleague, source, or representative from a company I cover.
We all like to complain about email, but my week-long experiment helped me realize how truly broken it is. Email started as an easy and effective way to communicate. Now it's just a constant source of frustration, with offers and irrelevant messages flying in without regard for whether or not you'd even care.
For journalists, it's especially bad with the hundreds of unsolicited pitches we get each day. I delete them all.
A lot of companies have tried to "fix" email over the last few years. Mailbox, a buzzy app that launched a few years ago, promised to make it really easy to manage your inbox, but it still makes you address every new message that comes through. (Still, Mailbox got so much attention that Dropbox bought the app for about $100 million just a few months after the official launch.)
This month, Microsoft released a new version of Outlook, which is the best email app for your phone. It has a feature called Quick Filter that claims to intelligently show you the messages that are likely to matter most. But in my experience, Quick Filter doesn't work perfectly and I still missed some messages from colleagues.
There are more examples of people trying and failing to fix email, but you get the idea.
So far, no one has figured out how to intelligently and automatically filter out the junk from the stuff that actually matters. Instead, you're forced to see it all, whether it matters to you or not. And as I learned last week, only about 3% of the emails I receive are worth reading. That's pitiful.
I have found one beacon of hope: Slack.
Slack is a buzzy startup that makes a chatting app for the workplace. It's growing like crazy and valued at about $1 billion.
Business Insider started using Slack last year and it has already changed how our editors and writers communicate. Instead of endless threads of emails with story pitches and ideas, we use Slack to coordinate the daily news flow for each section and make sure we all know what we're working on. I can see Slack (or something like it) completely replacing intra-office email one day.
But Slack only solves part of the problem. The real magic will happen when someone figures out how to create an intelligent filter that delivers on the promise of only showing you the emails that matter most. We still need email, but the way people use it now has turned it into a perverted system that's more of a burden than the useful tool it can be.
My week-long hiatus taught me that I've been managing my email the wrong way. If fewer than 5% of my emails matter, I'm going to start checking my inbox a lot less.
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