Thinking Through Email

Email dominates our communication today. It consumes chunks of our work days. It frustrates everyone. But why do we have so much trouble with email? Why is something so essential to our work such a source of pain?

Let’s consider two reasons we get frustrated with email. First, we don’t understand what email is; second, they’re so darn useful we use them for everything. We’ll focus on the problems in this post and consider solutions in an upcoming post. So first,

What is Email?

Email grew out of an office environment. People at work designed it to solve work problems. Email was never intended to be the ultimate communication method. The memorandum was the dominant form of office communication, and we can draw a direct correlation between the two.

Take a look at the header from a memo I wrote for a class:

Heading from a memo turned in for a Seminar in Public Administration.
Heading from a memo turned in for a Seminar in Public Administration.

Now look at the header from a marketing email I got from Amazon this morning:

Header from a marketing email from Amazon.com
Header from a marketing email from Amazon.com

From, To, Date, and Subject. The format hasn’t changed at all. Our first problem with email is that we don’t understand what it is. No one would ever use a memo to set up a lunch date, or plan a meeting. We use memos to communicate agendas and minutes for meetings. We send them to inform an organization of upcoming policy changes. They are useful for transmitting information and awful for planning.

The Clash

Emails are memos in every way but one: email transmission is instant. It’s so tempting to shoehorn email into jobs it’s not suited for. How often have you tried to set up a simple meeting and found yourself trapped in an email chain?[1]. We’ve correlated email and communication such that we default to email.

The memo is useful for a lot of communication. Newsletters and marketing messages translate well to the format. We even send personal letters via email.[2]. But if we’re going to get our inboxes under control we need to find better ways communicate when the message doesn’t fit. It might be as simple as sending a text or (Heaven forbid) making a call.

Wrap Up

Before you send an email consider what you’re communicating. Are you informing or planning? Do you need a record or is the message disposable? Thinking before messaging can prevent a lot of headache on the backend.


  1. A Doodle Poll would solve that problem.  ↩

  2. Remember when we complained that email was so impersonal compared to getting a letter in the mail? I think the email header had a lot to do with that. It just felt wrong getting an message from Grandma with the same header as the memo we got from our manager at work.  ↩