I try not to have too many pet peeves, but unnecessary e-mails are one of them. In the last weeks I have had to interface more often than usual with law and accounting firms. At those firms, reply all seems to be the norm, and it puzzles me.

I’ll lead with the answer before I present the riddle. I understand that for law and accounting firms, it’s more important to not make a mistake than to operate with optimal efficiency. That does make it all the more frustrating when they do make mistakes anyway. Nevertheless, I can see why reply all is the norm. Now the case against reply all.

Inbox zero is efficient and inbox infinity is chaos. For some workflows, chaos may be fine. Some venture capitalists argue that it is quite alright for them to miss and ignore most e-mails, presuming that the important ones will surface via serendipity, divine intervention, or the desperate reply stacking that becomes marginally more noticeable with subsequent follow-ups in Gmail. I am not one of those people. I am an inbox zero person.

When one is am inbox zero person, the inbox becomes a queue. I have to take some action with every e-mail to make it leave my inbox. I know that I need to address every e-mail so it’s fairly rare that I miss or forget an important notification. When people begin to copy me on e-mails I don’t need to read, or reply all when their note is really only directed at one person on the thread, I have to spend more time reading and clearing out unnecessary e-mails. Even worse is when someone sends the same e-mail to me twice, at different e-mail addresses. It’s not so bad when those e-mail addresses are aliases and land in the same inbox, but it’s genuinely confusing when I’m cross e-mailed at work and my various personal accounts.

Now, I can’t expect everyone to understand or appreciate that my inbox is a queue. And to be fair, one if my personal inboxes is not quite fully a queue. But in a professional environment, I personally find it essential to set the norm that the inbox is sacred. The inefficiency of mass e-mails and unrestrained reply all seem to be a leading indicators of organizational bloat, as I see them mostly in big, slow, and uninspiring organizations driven more by politics and show than artistry and creation. //end rant

In all seriousness though, I think communication and collaboration can happen more gracefully and fluidly if people make a conscious effort to avoid unnecessary e-mails. Unnecessary e-mails compound, especially with reply all, and we can all benefit from less noise and more signal.

But mostly, I just don’t like unnecessary e-mails.

In pursuit of magic