Clearing out the clutter: how to cut the distraction of email

Your alarm goes off at 7:15am, and what's the first thing you do? Pick up your phone to check your email.

It's 8:56 am, and you've just arrived at the office. Your first task? Check your inbox again. By the end of the day, you will have spent more than 4 hours on your work email – and an additional 3 hours on personal messages.

How did such a simple communication channel gain so much of our attention?

Email replaced productivity

For knowledge workers, productive work happens when we have long stretches of time to create value. Whether you're a software developer building a new feature or a copywriter working on the perfect bit of copy, we need hours free from disruption to get challenging work done.

The tools you use should help you be more efficient, effective, or both. But as Cal Newport (among many others) has pointed out, email does quite the opposite. Email provides a direct line to every working professional, and every message grabs our attention in the same way. Whether it's a marketing newsletter or an urgent update from a teammate, we're tempted to open it. The risk of missing a critical email forces us to treat every email as important until proven otherwise.

How we can evolve email

According to Newport, email has two fundamental flaws:

  1. Email addresses are associated with individuals rather than with teams, request types, or projects; so you never know what kind of message you might get.
  2. Sending a message has a low marginal cost, which puts the prioritization burden on the receiver rather than the sender.

These two flaws have led us to where we are today — digging through our inbox to find the messages we really need to see. But we still rely on email, even with its flaws. Email gives customers, investors, and partners an easy way to get in touch with us. It lets us communicate easily across time zones and locations. It provides a helpful record of conversations that we can pick up again at any time.

Today, we accept the distraction of email because the benefits still outweigh the costs. But how could we fix the flaws to keep the benefits and lose the distraction?

The future includes email

That's what we're focusing on at Front — turning email into a communication platform that enables, instead of takes away from, productivity.

Shared inboxes allow teams to manage email addresses tied to a function or project for better email triage. Using a shared inbox for email addresses like help@ or billing@ means that teams work on a single copy of an email behind-the-scenes. Not only do you get more hands on deck for each email, but you can set up rules, folders, and tagging systems to prioritize emails before anyone even sees them.

We've also replaced messy internal email threads with comments, so you can reserve email for external communication. All of the internal discussion is saved in comments next to the message (without generating more emails for everyone with CC's, BCC's, or Forwards). Once a conversation is shared, your team can follow along in the background instead of getting pinged every time there's activity in the thread.

As much as you may want it to now, email isn't going away. But changes like these transform email from the costly distraction we experience now into what it was meant to do — make it easier for people to communicate.