I've been thinking since I got home from a ten day vacation and had to process 2100 email messages about how much of my life is lived in my inbox. Of the 2100, almost 1700 of them were Spam and I'm not too concerned about those. SpamAssassin did a pretty good job and I have a feeling it or other technologies will eventually solve the Spam problem. What interests me are the 400 messages that were not Spam. At least 75% of those were messages that didn't really require my attention or could safely be ignored. Even of the remaining 100, many of them were more about coordination than real information. This has got me asking "what would it take to eliminate email from my life completely?"
No, I'm not talking about becoming an IT hermit. I still want to be connected, but I want to think about ways to significantly reduce the volume of email I process each day. Steve Fulling, the CTO of Sento, calls this time "dealing with micro-events." People asking a single question, sending a document, requesting a meeting, and so on. Interestingly enough, Steve is CTO of a company that solves this problem, at some level, for its clients. Sento tries to answer as many customer inquiries as they can using portals, email, and chat before taking the phone call since that's expensive.
This suggests that one possible strategy for reducing email volume is to proactively get information into the right channels ahead of time and create situations where many of these microevents solve themselves. Here's one example:
As a professor, one of the things I do is review thesis proposals and completed thesis's from students. This function generates a certain amount of email traffic as students request that I be on their committee, send me the proposal, ask to meet to review it, coordinate a meeting time, go over comments, request a meeting to review to fixed copy, and so on. The solution to this problem exists already: document management with built-in workflow.
Right now, I'm looking at all my messages and asking how I could move the task represented by the email stream out of the general purpose tool (email) and into a special purpose tool and what that special purpose tool would be. For the most part these tools, regardless of their ultimate purpose would be workflow and process management tools. This reminds me of Esther Dyson's comments on getting hold of processes. I want that to be as fine grained and personalizable as I can. If you're a BYU grad student and looking for a research topic, this would be a good one.
One problem with moving from a single general purpose tool like email to multiple special purposes tools is split focus. To understand what I mean, think about RSS. RSS has reduced the number of mailing lists I subscribe to and consequently reduced my email traffic. Perfect application, except that now I have to remember to fire up my feed reader in addition to my mail client. I generally treat it as lower priority and so I'm reluctant to get high-priority information delivered by RSS. What happens when there are a dozen special purpose tools managing my workflow instead of just a linear email list?
I think the answer to this problem lies in creating a task dashboard and having the various applications, including email, post control messages to the dashboard so that I have a single place to manage the various messages that are coming to me, albeit outside email. I'm envisioning something more flexible that a simple dashboard. I want a rule engine, easy graphics, templates, and so on so that I can customize it to the way I want to work. There's lots to think about here.