The real "problem" with email is that it's simply too good.
It's too cheap, it's too fast, it's too efficient and it's too easy to access. Could you imagine if gas was 2 cents a litre, cars cost $50 each and they could go 500km/ hour (and there were no speed limits)? The loss of life, the pollution, the chaos? Anytime we have an overabundance of an inexpensive resource - think water, electricity, even gas - what do we tend to do with it? We overuse, misuse and abuse it. With no visible cost why not send an email about anything and everything to anyone and everyone? And that's exactly what's happening. Email is spectacularly fast & efficient. An idea or question pops into your head and within a minute or two you've created an email and pressed sent. And similarly, I can respond very quickly. Within minutes or even seconds I can hit reply, formulate a response and press send. Wow, we sure are getting a lot done, fast. And we're getting it done from any place we are in the world. But how much thought goes into the question, the response or if this issue is even a priority for our time? The efficiency of email allows us to create work for each other faster than we're able to do the work.
So what can we do? Well, understanding the real challenge is a start to identifying real solutions. Email is simply too good - too cheap, too efficient - and as a result we're sending too much. Strategies to get faster at sorting, handling and responding to email can only go so far, we need to go beyond managing the Inbox and start managing the Outbox.
I propose the postage stamp solution. What if we had to pay the price of a stamp for each email we sent, including those people CC'd? How many email would we now decide not to send? How many fewer people would we copy on an email? And if an email isn't worth the price of a postage stamp should we really be sending it?
We could go a step further. What if the person receiving the email had to spend a postage stamp as well? This isn't as ridiculous as it sounds because you know what, that email you send does cost them. In fact it probably costs them more to receive the email than it costs you to send it. If you think about the typical email, on average it takes less time to ask a question than it does to formulate the answer. It takes less time to copy someone than it takes them to review it. Even that momentary distraction from something else carries a cost for the receiver. So would the receiver say that the email was worth the price of a stamp? And once again, if that email we send isn't worth the price of a stamp to the receiver, should we be sending it?
No, I'm not seriously proposing some kind of email tax. I am seriously proposing that we wake up to the real costs of email and put more thought into what we're sending to others. And that if we acted as though every email cost us a postage stamp, we would quickly see a lot of opportunities to cull low value email from our sent folder. We would think twice before pressing the send button. The quality of the email we send would go up, confusing strings would be reduced and fewer unnecessary names would be included in the cc field.