My last post got quite a few comments on Hacker News. They did force me to think a little, and here I’ll gather some of my thoughts.

I have an email workflow that is different from yours”

If you’re happy with your email setup, I am by no means suggesting you have a problem and need to change.

You’ve just reinvented X”

Others pointed out services like mine already exist. I was pretty sure they did, because I didn’t come up with the idea - I read it some years ago on a blog. I wish I could remember which so I can credit it, but I don’t know how to construct a proper query for a search engine to find it. I am glad people pointed this out, so that I can pass on to anyone reading my posts:

And it’s called challenge-response filtering.

Just don’t sign up” or “Actively unsubscribe”

Several comments like:

  • The key is not to let it build up.”
  • If you unsubscribe every time you see a new e-mail that you’re not interested in it’ll help keep it in check.”
  • No, this is just good email discipline. (unsubscribing and not signing up).”

Perhaps it has worked well enough for others, but it hasn’t for me.

  • Whenever I purchase something from a site, I actively search and unselect any boxes that imply I will get emails from them.
  • Not all sites give you such an option when you sign up to use their service.
  • There are certain times you need to sign up for some service. Think of all the apps you have on your phone. How many of them represent some service?

So not getting the emails in the first place is not an option. The next best thing is to be vigilant and unsubscribe as soon as you start getting unwanted emails from some service/company.

As I mentioned in my original post, I did this for a while. And I would have to keep doing this because of all those services. After doing this for years, I decided I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. As some other commenter said:

… the strategy of continuing to unsubscribe from things is based on the flawed idea that i want to opt-in to an ongoing maintenance task for the rest of my life.

And for people who say having a clean inbox is just a matter of discipline: Why on Earth should engaging in email require any discipline? There is no inherent value in maintaining that discipline (unlike, say, exercise). This may be hard to see until you come to my side of things.

Consider this analogy: Let’s say you own a (physical) space that is not locked. Anyone can and does walk into that space, and they are all free to use it. I care about only a few of these people - perhaps one out of every 20. This creates a lot of mess, which requires a lot of effort on my part to clean it. Yet I take pride in cleaning it every day - I’m very disciplined. My friend, though, is wondering why I don’t just install a lock and give the people I care about a key? That would cut down on the mess a lot. If I turned to him and say “Oh it just takes discipline - why should I bother with a lock?” would it make much sense? There’s no virtue in cleaning a mess every day.

Look at things from my perspective. I have a functioning system using a whitelist. Can you give me a benefit to switching to your model, where I need to have discipline? What gain do I get from it that I don’t already have? Don’t just blindly accept the status quo as the default.

I don’t get too much spam.”

If we’re talking about real spam (as opposed to stuff I may have signed up for), I don’t either. In the last 24 hours, I didn’t get any spam.

However, there was a point 1-2 years ago where suddenly the amount of spam I was getting exploded. I remember counting almost 50 in one day, and 20 was the norm at the time. It was around that time I was motivated to write this.

But we’re not talking only about spam. We’re talking about non-personal emails. As an example, last Monday, I got around 10 of them. It’s still more than I care for.

That solution won’t work”

I’ve had this experience many times in my life where I describe something that is working, and someone tries to convince me it’s not, based on some model of the world he has in his head.

You know, like when someone says you couldn’t have bought something at price X because it’s too cheap and they would go out of business at that price. Well, I can double check my CC, but that’s what I paid.

Or the time when I said if I sell my house at today’s prices, it would have been a better deal than had I rented, and someone said that was impossible because of all the maintenance costs, real estate fees, etc. That someone had no idea how much I paid for the house or what it is worth today.

I’ve been using it for over a year. It’s working well. And as others have pointed out, people are making money off of it. The solution works for those who want it.

Just filter on emails that have the word Unsubscribe

It’s embarrassing to admit that I never thought of that. Nevertheless, I just checked: A third of my quarantined emails don’t have that word.

Random Thoughts

A few people did like the solution, and indicated they had the same problem.

Reading all the comments, it’s clear people have different perspectives on what email is, and what role it should play in their lives. I outlined my vision of it in my previous post: A medium to communicate with others. Over time, we’ve overloaded the medium for all kinds of purposes:

  • Reminders (e.g. calendar)
  • Document management (here’s the receipt for your order)
  • Newsletters
  • TODO items
  • Notifications (discounts, sale of house in desired neighborhood, credit alerts, etc)
  • Status of tools (automated reports, build reports, etc)
  • Probably a lot more

At the moment, the above items dwarf the communications role. None of the above involves a 2-way communication. I want to minimize using email for these purposes and return to nontrivial communications.

From the comments, it’s clear not many share my perspective. And I can easily believe younger folks likely don’t. When they started using email, all of the above was the norm. I wouldn’t be surprised if for many personal communication is not even on the list of desired uses for email.

Let’s take a compelling statistic:

According to Carleton University researchers, people now spend one-third of their time at the office - and half of the time they work at home - reading and answering emails. And 30 per cent of that time, the emails are neither urgent nor important.

Depending on where you work, this is not a surprise. I found other statistics - from as low as 30 minutes to as high as 2-3 hours/day. If I exclude the time where actual value is being created (e.g. responding to coworker’s queries, etc), and just itemize the time spent tending to the work inbox, and reading corporate emails (rarely of any value), and trying to sort all the internal mailing lists you’re on (rarely any email of value, and in my work place, no filter you can set up because there’s nothing in the header/subject that will indicate it’s from the mailing list), the time is significant. Then add in the time lost because important emails were missed in all that morass.

I’ve occasionally heard senior people at work say “Just because you send me an email doesn’t mean I’ll read it. I simply do not have the time to read all the emails I get.” Frankly, this is true even if you’re not in a senior position - you just can’t say it out loud.

Email management takes a toll. And granted, while personal emails are not as heavy as work emails, I believe we still pay too much of a price for them.

I expect in the decades to come, people will change their perspective on email. For the workplace, the model of anyone being able to send as much as they want to as many people as they want is definitely harmful. The notion of “So what if you sent me an email? What makes you think I read it?” will become more prevalent. I expect alternative channels will be used a lot more than email for these purposes.

And I think personal email will follow suit. One commenter said he considers it quite rude not to reply promptly to a personal email. It’s a laudable goal, but when you look at the context where anyone can send a long email to dozens of people, without putting any effort into it (e.g. copy-paste/tool generated), it doesn’t make sense. Expecting the recipient of your email to not have dozens or more similar emails to manage - all competing with your email - is a poor assumption.