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Old 06-25-2008, 01:30 PM Offline   #1 (permalink)

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Default Clive Thompson on How Email Bots Can Deal With Your Overstuffed Inbox

Suppose you need to reach me with an urgent email? Try hitting Send at precisely 10:47 am. Statistically speaking, that's when my most crucial messages arrive each day — and when I'm most likely to ping you back.
How do I know this? Because I've been using a new software app called Xobni to manage my horribly overstuffed inbox.
Among other cool tricks, Xobni spots hidden patterns in your email usage. It identifies, for instance, who your most important contacts are, what time of day they typically send email, and how long it takes you to reply to one another. I discovered that the missives I care about most — from my wife, editors, and closest friends — tend to arrive in bursts during the mid-morning and late afternoon.
This is incredibly useful knowledge. These days, instead of leaving my email open all the time and jumping with Pavlovian slaver at each ding, I check in only during what I now know are my two "hot zones." I can work uninterrupted most of the day with the confidence that I'll be online when the on-fire messages arrive.
Artificial intelligence in the service of life-hacking: It's the future of email.
And God knows we need a better future for email, because the present is intolerable. This once-miraculous productivity tool has metastasized into one of the biggest timesucks in American life. Studies show that there are 77 billion corporate email messages sent every day, worldwide. By 2012, that number is expected to more than double. The Radicati Group calculates that we already spend nearly a fifth of our day dealing with these messages; imagine a few years down the road, when it takes up 40 percent of our time. "It's madness," says Merlin Mann, who runs 43Folders.com, a leading productivity blog. "We're all desperately trying to figure out how to cut stuff so we can get through the day, and it just gets harder and harder." (Mann advocates dealing with incoming messages immediately so your inbox is always empty. Me, I've got 12,802 messages in there right now.)
Why has email spun so badly out of control? Because it's asymmetric — incredibly easy to send but often devilishly burdensome to receive.
For example, in one minute I can send an email to a thousand coworkers asking them to review a document. Let's say each recipient spends five seconds disgustedly discarding it. Boom: In just one minute, I've wasted 5,000 seconds — 1 hour, 23 minutes — of my organization's time. Equally insidious is the growing plague of semi-meaningful emails — friend requests, one-word replies from your boss. Email apps weren't designed to recognize such idiocies, which is why our inboxes become unruly messes, with important messages pushed offscreen and out of mind.
Thankfully, this has begun to change in the past year with the arrival of AI-equipped email monitors like Xobni. Another of my favorites is ClearContext, which identifies your most valued contacts — people you reply to quickly and frequently — and flags their incoming messages. It also endows you with superpowered sorting. If a work-related thread goes off the rails — like when colleagues hijack a project discussion to argue about Lost — you can zap it. From that point on, new messages in the thread are filtered out and deleted automatically.
For my money, though, the best part of these nü-email apps is more subtle. They give you insight into yourself — how and why you email at all.
After a few days of using these tools, I began to see that much of my supposedly "crucial" correspondence wasn't really all that urgent. I was wasting a lot of time on endless volleys that could have been dispatched with a quick phone call. (Helpfully, Xobni auto-extracts phone numbers from emails, making this a snap.) I've started typing less and dialing more.
A really good email app, in other words, encourages you to use email less. And that seems like the best solution of all.
Email clive@clivethompson.net at precisely 10:47 am EST.


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