A World Without E-Mail: Getting Our Lives Back in Synch

World Without E-Mail
About twenty years ago, I was at a meeting of business executives complaining about a new (at that time) technology they instinctively disliked. It was voice-mail. Their view was that it wasted time: If it was important, people would call back, wouldn’t they? They had assistants, of course, to sort ‘important’ calls from the rest and block the riffraff from reaching them. Now anyone could leave messages for anyone. What was the world coming to?

Earlier this year, I was chatting with a group of young people complaining about e-mail. Their view was that it wasted time. Far more effective to deal with issues in real time, using chat or VoIP. If it was important, people would call back, wouldn’t they? Their e-mail was mostly spam and impossibly long stuff they’d never get around to reading, and probably couldn’t understand without talking to someone about it anyway. So what was the point?

It is human nature to communicate through conversation in real time. This allows us to ask questions and get context quickly through interactive discussion. It is also human nature to want information just-in-time, not just-in-case. Forget your ‘FYI’, please give me ‘WYR’ (What You Requested).

The problem with both v-mail and e-mail (aside from the fact they’re asynchronous, often ill-timed, and usually devoid of context) is that they shift the power from the recipient of communications (e.g. the right to decline conversation) to the sender. We are all, of course, both senders and recipients of communications, but most of us would prefer the power to remain with the recipient. The popularity of ‘no call’ lists and our abhorrence for spam attests to this preference.

E-mail is used for a lot more than ‘conversation’ of course. Last year I described 10 situations when it was not appropriate to use e-mail. In seven of these (bad news, complex information or approvals, complicated instructions, comments on a long document, achieving consensus and discussing a new idea) a conversation is called for. In two of them (recurring information requests, recurring instructions) the communication should be embedded in the business process, instead of repeated messages. And in one (FYI communications) it makes sense to instead post the information where it can be retrieved ‘just in time’ when needed.

In that article, I suggested the only time you would need to use e-mail is to send simple requests for info, approval or instructions, or to reply to a specific request for e-mail. IM is a better vehicle than e-mail for both of these.

But we’re not going to rid the world of unnecessary e-mails by training and persuading people to use it sparingly. As long as the tool exists in its present form, and people acknowledge they have to accept e-mails, we’re not going to change anything.

What if we invented a new tool, an alternative to e-mail, that would have no inbox? The chart above suggests how it could work. Here’s a walkthrough:

  1. Each of us has a calendar that we use to block out time when we’re open for conversation requests. We can specify times for discussion of specific subjects, or discussion with specific communities of people, and also ‘open’ time when we’re open to discuss anything with anyone. The rest of our calendar is ‘closed’: viewers see only that it’s private, unavailable time.
  2. If we want to send someone a message, we first ask: Does it require a conversation (to be meaningful)? If it does, the tool will send us to a conversation engagement calendar. If not, the tool will allow us to send it to the recipient’s library, as a gift, to be used when and if it is of value. If it’s a recurring information request or instruction, and the answer to the question is neither, then it boots us out — this is not the tool to use for such systematic communications, which should be embedded in the related business process technology.
  3. If it’s an ‘FYI’ communication, the sender indexes it (says what topic it’s about) and sends it to the recipient’s library, to be used if and when it’s useful. The sender gets an automatic acknowledgement of their ‘gift’, an instant ‘thank you’.
  4. It’s now up to the recipient, whenever s/he wishes, to accept or decline this addition to her/his e-library of documents and links on her/his hard drive. The recipient can choose to automatically accept and have filed everything sent to her/him, or decline everything, or decide each time, and/or re-index these donations. The sender never knows — it’s not their business. The technology of today’s spam filters could be used to facilitate this.
  5. If it’s a communication requiring conversation, the sender is logged into the recipient’s calendar and shown available slots for a conversation on that subject. If none of the slots is suitable, the sender can send an IM requesting an earlier or longer slot. It’s up to recipient to respond, or not. The ‘status’ of the recipient is ignored in this — those of you who use IM a lot know that this status means nothing.
  6. If a suitable timeslot is available, the tool allows the sender to book it, indicate the topic for the conversation, pick a medium for the conversation (IM/text, voice/phone/VoIP, face to face), and attach any pre-reading that will make optimal use of people’s time during the conversation. Ideally this tool could allow multi-party conversations to be scheduled, finding times when all relevant parties are available. The tool might even be designed to have certain times of day (when, through an evolutionary process, we’d come to agree are optimal times for multi-party conversations) specifically allotted for such conversations, so, for example, a blog writer could allot a specific time the next day for anyone who was interested to converse, in real time, about the day’s post(s).
  7. Regardless of what it said in the calendar, the recipient has the final say — s/he can decide to decline a request for a conversation, and a message would then be sent to the sender removing it from their calendar as well. A reschedule would likewise be accommodated by the tool.
  8. At the allotted time(s), the calls would be placed automatically — no need to dial. Reminders would be sent in advance at the discretion of each calendar owner. The calls could be recorded, or not, at the discretion of the participants, and the archives sent directly to the participants’ e-libraries on their hard drives, indexed appropriately for later ‘just-in-time’ use. You could even post follow-up “to do’s” to your to do lists, blocked into future time slots in your calendar, as the conversation progressed.

This tool would not be hard to build — all of the technologies in it exist already. What is elegant about it is that it mimics our real-life behaviour in allotting our time. It is simple, intuitive, and real-time.

Imagine ending your day with nothing in your in-basket(s). Imagine beginning your day knowing exactly what conversations you are going to have with whom, so your time is organized precisely, with no phone calls or e-mails to crowd ahead of what you’d already planned to do. Imagine not having to read and listen to volumes of stuff every day just to decide what if anything needs to be done about it, now. Imagine reading what we decide we need to read, instead of what others have decided we should read.

We could start doing again what we did in the days before v-mail and e-mail — spend our time actually doing things, and in conversations learning and understanding and consulting and making informed, real-time decisions. This tool could get our lives out of the asynchronicity that these time-wasting tools have wrought, and put ourlives back in synch.

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4 Responses to A World Without E-Mail: Getting Our Lives Back in Synch

  1. RapidVPN.com says:

    good weblog…hope be successful always.

  2. PeterC says:

    Hmmmm, I much prefer e-mail so I can accept and decline as my schedule dictates.Of course, I also use Outlook(at work because I have too) as it really should be used I try to never let my inbox get more than 4 read but unactioned items in it. Everything else gets transfered using the 4-Ds. Do it, decide when, delegate, or delete. This allows me to check e-mail twice a day on my schedule, and FYI e-mails get stuffed in the appropriate catagory for JIT access. I often don’t answer the phone and simply check v-mail. If it is important they will leave a detailed message or call back. That’s how I work it anyhow, and it seems to solve much of the trouble with e-mail that you describe. Typically, with my dysfunctional mamangers, a conversations ends with the phrase “Just get the job done” without any clear resolution of the issues which caused the conversation, so maybe I’m jaded. :)As always, good reading you!

  3. ‘Conversation’ requires an understanding between two parties about what works best for them (1)if each knows where they stand in terms of each other’s priority list. Reasonable people know when to wait patiently or to signal a real need for urgent attention. If they don’t know this, it is because WE have failed to let them understand their place in our lives and our place in theirs.(2)given the fact that our days are no longer structured around a rising or setting sun. One hour of the day or night is as good as any other depending upon who you are and how you conduct your life. Others need to know that as well BUTPlease don’t turn email into a bureaucracy. It is really nothing more than a communication tool with the added advantage that writing offers in terms of choices and styles that speech lacks. Every topic will be best expressed differently for each person. Business communications need records, friends names in our boxes are comforting without requiring instant response when we know one another well (and can be marked URGENT if needed).That’s really all it takes. If you can’t handle the volume of email you get on that basis, its time to delegate some level to another person who can filter it for you or downsize your life. Just my opinion of conversation as personal, yet existing on many clear levels of form which have their own rules. As a speech pathologist who has made a study of sociolinguistics, communication is rather instinctive if you haven’t grown up in a cave and doesn’t need more restrictions. Just honesty in terms of relationship type . But then, doesn’t everything?Barbara

  4. I think your plan is entirely workable. Due to stress related illness, I took medical leave from work. One thing I did for myself was to delete ALL my email from my home computer. Whether it was from work, friends or others didn’t matter. Content and importance didn’t matter either. It was a huge relief to let go of it.Now, I check my email once a week. I’m still on leave taking care of regaining my health, but freed from email I now have time to give to better and more pleasant things like walking with my dog.

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