Are Better Tools the Solution to Email Overload?

207291_multi_purpose_knife.jpgEmail overload and ways of fighting it are being discussed more and more as time goes on. Many vendors are selling tools that are aimed at making our email experience more productive. Some of them are very well thought of, e.g. ClearContext Inbox Manager.

Even though I’m a tool vendor myself, I want to make it clear that better software cannot solve email overload. Better software can just alleviate the dire situation we’re all in. Two quite varied examples are anti-spam products and automatically color-coding your messages according to various criteria.

Don’t be fooled by any marketing message that says [product] will solve your email overload problems. It won’t. It can’t. Only you can solve your problems.

The reason for this is the fact that email overload is not the problem; it is just a symptom of the problem. Email overload is a result of:

  • lack of organization
  • bad work habits & lack of discipline
  • lack of focus & concentration
  • lack of training (none of us were trained to deal with such a deluge of information)

Email overload is a subjective feeling. When I regained full control of my email, I was still getting just as much email as before, but I no longer suffered from email overload. I had learned to handle it properly and still keep my balance. Although the feeling of email overload may be directly related to the height of the pile of unhandled emails in your inbox, the stress is compounded by all those other tasks that your email has been distracting you from completing.

A bad workman blames his tools

If you suffer from email overload, there is something wrong with you. There is probably something seriously wrong with your organization’s work culture as well, but don’t hide behind this: it does not mean that you have to keep suffering.

So how do we fix the situation? GTD is a good solution to the root-cause problems I mentioned above. But GTD requires practice and discipline, so it’s helpful to select tools that reinforce your good habits — the tools won’t do the work for you, but they can certainly make it easier to “stay on the wagon”.

Although I didn’t realize it then, this is why I developed SpeedFiler. I wanted to clear up the clutter in my inbox, but Outlook’s user interface made it too cumbersome for someone like me, who had 600+ folders in deep hierarchies (I have since learned to let go, and now use a somewhat flatter structure). SpeedFiler made it so easy to file my messages where they belonged, that I had no excuse for letting anything drop back in the inbox once I had read it and determined how it affected my work.

My users often get rather emotional when they describe what SpeedFiler has done for them (actually, they did it themselves; SpeedFiler just acted as a catalyst), and I, too, am captivated by the passion for productivity and the sustained burst of energy that comes from getting back in life’s driving seat.


6 responses to “Are Better Tools the Solution to Email Overload?

  1. I fundamentally disagree. Email overload is, in my view, first and foremost a result of the Born Reciever Cost Dilemmna. It’s cheaper (in time, energy) to create an email than it is for all the collective recipients to read/process that email. This is the fundamental driver of SPAM, and it’s ALSO the fundamental driver of overload.

    Why are we getting more email?
    A. SPAM (partially fixed now)
    B. More Friends/Contacts
    C. More EMAIL LISTS (we’re joining more lists, or those lists are busier)

    I suspect in 9/10 cases, it’s C hands down. Said another way, I know of nobody that’s getting 200-300 unique, personally specific to them emails per day, and I know thousands of people getting 200-800 LIST generated emails per day and/or notes sent to multiple people.

    Technology does exist to INVERT the recipient cost. One idea that we’re forming is to create mail voting, since lots of people are on that list, and lots of people are independently concluding the same things about the same emails (junk, good, bad, archive, print, FYI only, actionable-for-john-only.), if we create a backend message bus for that knowledge, we can leverage the recipientS, so that each has less lifting to do.

    In other words, if 700 people receive a limited value note, after the first 20 reads/votes, the remaining people can deprioritize that email without ever seeing it.

    Over time, heuristics, tuning, learning etc. could improve who one takes and wieghts in terms of other votes. (

    we’ve got an outlook trial client that’s fully peer-to-peer SSL based voting if you want to see this in action.

    thougths welcome,


  2. Very interesting. I do agree that there is a place for tools. However tools alone will not prevent people feeling overloaded. Your product has the potential to reduce the amount of work-related junk we get, but unless people learn to handle email better (for instance, by not letting it interrupt everything they do and by correctly prioritizing how they handle each message) they will be working inefficiently, and will feel stressed.

  3. Just finished reading the article on tools and email overload.

    A couple of weeks ago, I visited a website that talks about tools and business email overload. It says that people are the only filter to relieve email overload from co-workers. I think I remember reading here something Gartner said about that — gave it a name like internal SPAM. Anyway, this site says they have a product that makes people filters using behavioral science. Interesting idea.

    I didn’t try the product so I don’t know how it works. But the URL is if you’re interested.

  4. Pingback: L’Internet des Objets » Blog Archive » Pour une √©cologie informationnelle

  5. Gr8 Post! I think tools like Clear context, Taroby and many of these New Generation tools are excellent in tackling Email Overload. It is equally important to develop and Practice some Email Habits which help you in the process. Check out this blog for more…

  6. Many people manage the vast majority of their business interactions through email, and are overwhelmed by high email volume that causes critical items to slip through the cracks.

    As cofounder of TextToTasks (, may I bring attention to an Outlook 2010 add-in that greatly enhances email productivity?

    TextToTasks Add-In for Outlook 2010 extracts tasks from email text and saves them in Outlook so you can work on what’s important and track what others owe you. More sophisticated than dragging email messages to Tasks or flagging messages for follow-up, all sentences of a message are analyzed resulting in zero, one, or several tasks. Users experience no performance or functionality gaps and the software automatically captures, organizes, and prioritizes tasks found in outgoing, incoming, and previously saved email. TextToTasks works for the individual Outlook 2010 user regardless of whether other senders and/or recipients are using Outlook.

    You may download a 15 day trial version from the homepage.

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