Inbox Fatigue: Why This New Era Of Anti-Email Isn’t Better, And A Prediction Of Future Communication

Slack. Asana. Voxer. We live in a time of amazing software that connects us and allows us to communicate for business.

… but is it good?

And is it better than email, which many are saying it is?

Well, at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old man, I’m not convinced we’re in a better age.

I’m experiencing inbox fatigue — not fatigue from my email inbox but rather fatigue from the sheer number of inboxes I now have to manage.

Aaron Hoos Writer
This is not me. It’s a stock photo… doubtlessly of someone experiencing inbox fatigue!

THE EARLY DAYS WERE SIMPLER…

When I started my business (well, restarted my business) over 10 years ago, I had basically 3 inboxes:

  • Email was my primary inbox and in those early days I also used it as a project management system. I would accept projects in my email, work on them on my desktop, and then deliver them back through email.
  • And my phone — people would call and if they had to leave a voicemail then I’d get back to them.

These first two were my primary inboxes.

  • I also had an account on a site called Guru.com, which is a job-posting site that people would use to hire freelancers. I ran a bunch of my projects through there as well, so it was technically a third inbox (although those projects were automatically emailed to me so I could still monitor my Guru account in my email inbox).

So basically 2-3 inboxes.

Pretty simple.

…THEN THERE WAS INBOX CREEP…

Over time, things changed: There was the concurrent development of the growth of my own business as well as the advancement of technology.

So more clients, more complex clients, and more complex technology meant more inboxes to pay attention to…

  • Skype
  • Texts
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • More job boards (like Guru… including oDesk, Elance, etc.)
  • Basecamp
  • Client’s internal/proprietary project management systems

I also got my own act together and started managing my projects in another system instead of email (I tried a couple different ones but really clicked with Evernote, which I still love today).

It was a lot, and growing, but also manageable.

…AND NOW THERE’S INBOX OVERLOAD!

But today it’s become even more complex:

I have several clients using Slack, several more using Asana, and several more using Voxer, on top of the systems I’ve already mentioned above.

Yes, these all serve different purposes (some are communication-centric, others are for project management), but the bottom line is: they are all inboxes.

In short, I’ve gone from running a business with 2-3 inboxes to running a business with dozens of inboxes, sometimes multiple inboxes for just one client.

And it seems like we’re coming out with new inboxes all the time. Slack is relatively new, for example, and it’s touted as an email killer. Not surprisingly, several clients have jumped on board to use Slack instead of email. This will continue and it will grow as the next Slack and the NEXT Slack and the NEXT NEXT Slack is invented.

I’M NOT TURNING INTO AN OLD MAN — I HAVE A LEGIT POINT!

I swear — I’m NOT turning into a curmudgeonly old man. I realize that the level of client I now serve probably requires more complex communication and project management systems, and some of these systems provide value that email did not (such as versioning control). And to be frank, my business is far more complex and financially successful than in those simpler 2-inbox days so I definitely welcome the added features!

It seems like we’re in an era of “anti-email” — where communication is being done in more specific, more robust software that is more attuned to a single purpose.

But this new era of communication and project management causes me to wonder: is it better?

I don’t think it is.

In fact, I think this new era of anti-inbox communication is actually hurting us, for the following reasons:

1. We’ve reduced emails but we haven’t reduced messages: We once had inboxes that BURST at the seams with hundreds of emails flooding in every day and that was overwhelming.

(In fact, I still have a few clients with whom I have frequent “Replay All” email conversations between 4 of us, and if I miss a few emails while in a meeting then it takes a while to catch up.)

I understand that the sheer volume of emails is exhausting. But here’s the point I think people are missing: we’re not reducing the number of messages we once had; we’re just spreading them across more inboxes.

So instead of one big and daunting pile of emails (which is admittedly overwhelming) we have several small piles of messages in email, text, Skype, Facebook, Slack, Asana, Basecamp, Voxer, etc.

2. We are now paying an “invisible” price for this. We think we’re reducing email but we’re not — and now we’re ALSO paying a “switching cost” to check all of these different inboxes instead of just one. We now have to sign into several different inboxes to check those inboxes, communicate, etc.

3. We still use email for “important” things. Well, I don’t know about you but this is the case for me and my clients. We communicate on projects through all these various inboxes but whenever someone wants to raise the importance of something, they send an email. So email is still valued as a way to communicate but it’s become almost a place to indicate priority.

4. Even the anti-email mindset still benefits when there is only ONE inbox. It seems like people want multiple inboxes for different things, depending on the situation. They can have project management work in one set of inboxes and communication in another set of inboxes, etc. There’s this implicit idea that a single-inbox email is inefficient and old-school. Yet, how do you stay on top of all the notifications from each of these new and diverse inboxes? If you’re like most people I know, you do so through the notifications on your phone: each inbox has an app and each app notifies when there’s a new message. So all we’ve really done is take the single inbox value out of email and put it onto our phone. (But we still pay a “switching cost” to go from one app to another).

I THINK WE’LL SEE A SHIFT BACK

There is a lot of value to these apps. I use them and I like them. For example, I’m a big fan of Voxer. And Asana is growing on me (although it feels like a lot of its features were crammed in as an afterthought without a ton of user-experience consideration — IMO).

I think we’ll eventually* see a shift back to a single inbox in the future. We might not call it “email”. I predict that we’ll have some kind of inbox/dashboard/gathering-point, where all notifications will come into a single place from everywhere allowing us to review, sort, prioritize, and then launch into the right app.

… and this single inbox/dashboard/thing will need to be device agnostic so it works everywhere — on our mobile devices (replacing the mobile device itself as an inbox) and also on our laptops (for those of us who use them for work).

(* “eventually” = I’m not sure when. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. It could happen this year but I doubt it.)

My mobile device is working just fine as a notifier but I’d like something on my laptop too (so that I can download files I need to work on, etc.) and I’m hacking something together with my Evernote inbox, email, and IFTTT. But it’s sketchy.

If you are a developer looking for a project, I think this is going to be huge. People think they want an email killer but what they really want is one place to gather EVERYTHING. Right now we’re using our mobile devices to do that, but that has limitations. What we really need is an inbox that is like our email inbox right now (everything in one place) but doesn’t seem like email… and from which we can review, sort, filter, prioritize, and manage all those messages from all those inboxes… and to be able to access that anywhere (mobile devices, online, desktop/laptop, etc.)

In the meantime? I assume we’ll just keep piling on the apps every time a new supposed “email-killer” inbox comes out. And I guess we’ll just use our mobile devices to ping us every time we get a message.

Eventually we’ll get tired of it and do something about it.

Here’s what you should do if you want to start a business but are stuck in a job

A lot of people have a job but would rather start a business. Problem is, they feel stuck.

… They feel stuck in their job because it pays them a predictable paycheck every week and they need to pay the mortgage and put food on the table rather than risk starting a business and not knowing whether they’ll be able to pay their mortgage during the early start-up days.

Friends, former coworkers, potential clients — many of the folks I know are in the same boat. Just recently someone reached out because they were facing exactly this scenario: They want to start a business, they have entrepreneurial aspirations, but they weren’t ready yet to give up the predictability and assurance of a paycheck.

HERE’S THE ADVICE I GIVE TO EVERYONE WHO IS STUCK IN A JOB AND WANTS TO QUIT

(The good news: It’s easy and fun to do, and there’s ZERO risk).

First, decide what problem you want to solve and determine what target market you want to serve. (Check out this blog post about how to research niche markets).

As well, start thinking about how you’ll solve this problem and serve this target market. You do not need to nail down a specific product or service that you’ll offer, although you should start thinking about it. However, you do not need to have a product or service yet, nor do you need to figure out price, etc.

Second, build a website about that problem and the solution. You can create a free website on a site like blogger.com or wordpress.com, although it doesn’t cost very much (and it looks way more professional) if you build a website that you pay for (i.e. buy a URL and get it hosted on a server). It’s simple and affordable (maybe $100 a year) and it gives you a ton more credibility.

Once you’ve built the site, just start writing about the problem and solution. I recommend a blog, although you don’t have to use a blog. But I do recommend that you blog about the problem and the solution regularly. At least twice a month, although you should probably blog about it a little more frequently than that. (Once a week is great).

Blog. Blog. Blog. Just keep blogging. Keep it simple, have fun, and most important, be helpful! Don’t worry about giving away your secret sauce too early; just add value to your audience and get them reading your site and listening to you.

The reality is, you probably won’t get much traction in the early weeks or months. That’s okay. There’s a few things going on here:

  1. You’re building a great foundation of content that will benefit you later
  2. You’re positioning yourself as an expert
  3. You’re testing the water to make sure you enjoy it and can sustain talking about it

… and of course you’re doing all that without quitting your job; you can do it about half an hour a week, in an evening. Easy!

Third, start sharing your content on other sites. Slowly start building marketing accounts at sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and start participating on industry forums. Don’t aggressively market, just start building content and interacting with people who find you there. Expect this to take a few weeks or months. That’s okay. Just keep working and having fun building this foundational component.

Fourth, assuming you’ve done the first three steps correctly, and a few months have passed and you’re now starting to get some traffic and some people listening to you, then you can decide what to do. I would consider building an email list at this point using a service like Aweber. Sign up for Aweber and add a contact form to your website. Then website visitors will add their email address to the contact form and you can start emailing them to connect with them on a deeper level. Again, expect to take a few weeks or even months to do this. There’s no rush.

Fifth, at this point, you should start thinking about something to sell. If at all possible, start with a content-based product that you can create and sell for passive income (such as an ebook or video training). That’s the best option, because it allows you to do this all while you’re still working.

If it’s impossible to start with a content-based product (for example, if you want to start a service-based business) then you need to make a decision:

  • Are you able to provide the service in the evenings and weekends? If so, you might consider starting that way. Lots of businesses start that way and it doesn’t take long to ramp up from there.
  • Are you able to outsource your customer leads to someone who can run the business? If you can sell your leads to someone else, or hire someone to perform the service for you, then you’re good. No need to quit your job if you don’t want to.
  • Or, you might have enough work to quit… then go ahead.

The easiest way to do assess whether or not you have enough potential business to quit your job is to do this: Send out an email to the list of contacts you built in the previous step and say, “Hey, I have some availability in about two weeks. You can hire me to (… do whatever service you’re selling). If you’re interested, just reply back.” If no one replies, there’s your answer. If people do reply, give them a small discount if they pay in advance so you have some cash flow during the transition. Then march into your boss’ office and hand in your two week’s notice.

QUESTIONS PEOPLE ASK ME ABOUT THIS METHOD

How long does it take to get this going? It takes only a few minutes to set it up and only about 30 minutes to an hour each week to keep it going. But the time to get to the point where you can quit your job, that part depends on you: You could be looking at weeks, months, or even years, depending on the target market you chose, the problem they feel and the solution you offer, how much you charge, and how much you position yourself. But I’ve seen this work over and over, and I’ve seen it take as little as 2-3 weeks. If you want, you can do this over a period of years; there’s no rush.

How much does it cost (or, can I use free services?) You CAN do this entirely for free. Actually, this is exactly what I did way back when I first started (using a blogger-based blog and a yahoo email address!) However, I wouldn’t recommend it. Setting this up doesn’t cost much — maybe $250 a year, max — but the level of professionalism that you achieve with that investment is priceless. Plus, if your business grows really big, you’ll need to eventually switch over to a regular (paid) site and that switch can be challenging after all the marketing you built up to your original free site in the first place. So seriously consider a paid site.

What happens if someone contacts me to buy from me but I’m still working and can’t serve them? If you can, see if you can help them on an evening or weekend, if appropriate. Or, sell them as a lead to another company who can help them. Or, if neither of those two things are possible, just tell them that you’re fully booked and can’t serve them at this time.

What happens if it doesn’t work out? Great! You’ve lost nothing but some time. Consider selling the website to someone else or just shut it down and consider it an investment into an education.

NOW GET STARTED

This is a simple, painless, and even FUN way to build the foundation of a business with no risk. I would advise anyone with a job to start doing this right away, even if you love your job and don’t want to quit. This creates options for you down the road but doesn’t expose you to any downside today. You may be able to build up a business that will replace your income (or just augment it)… and it’s easy to do.

What is due diligence?

Due diligence is the investigation and research that an investor should conduct prior to making an investment to determine whether that investment is right for them. This is true for any kind of investment — from stocks to real estate to businesses.

It’s technically a legal obligation for some investments but I would argue that it’s essential for any investment and, in fact, for any kind of agreement or acquisition at all, whether it’s your home or car, or even whether you’re thinking about entering into a relationship with someone. (In a way, it’s all an investment — your car is an investment of money into your ability to get around; your new relationship is an investment of time and energy into a friendship or romance).

Ultimately, due diligence should answer the question: “Is this investment right for me at this moment?

Good due diligence should first seek to understand that investment (or whatever) as thoroughly as possible. Then, it should consider what the investment means to you and your own goals and timeline.

HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE INVESTMENT

To understand the investment, you need to explore it thoroughly. If it’s a stock, you need to study the stock itself, the industry, and market trends (and so much more. If it’s a real estate investment, you need to study the marketplace, the tenants and property management company, and the costs of maintaining a home in that area (and so much more). Even if it’s a potential romantic partner, you need to know what they’re hoping for a relationship, how they enjoy spending their time, whether the attraction is mutual, etc.

HOW TO CONSIDER WHAT THIS INVESTMENT MEANS TO YOU

An investment, by its very nature, requires you to trade something of value for the potential of a return. That thing of value could be money, time, effort, or many other things. So it’s important that you know what is required of you (and whether you have that to give) and what you can expect. And perhaps most importantly, you need to decide whether the expected return is what you want. Many investors buy into something without really thinking about whether it’s right for them at this moment in time; they end up putting up too much value and receiving returns that they are disappointed with.

DO YOUR DUE DILIGENCE — ALWAYS

Regardless of your investment, it is impossible to perform too much due diligence. However, there comes a point when, practically speaking, you’ve done enough due diligence to move forward. I don’t think people have a problem with the idea of due diligence; rather, I think people do too little due diligence.

(Side note: As a real estate investor, I hear a lot of people say that they’re doing their due diligence but what they’re really doing is being stalled by fear and they are allowing that fear to catch them up into a loop of “analysis paralysis”. Strangely, I only see this in real estate and business investments — never in the stock market.)

Do not leave your due diligence in someone else’s hands. Sure, your financial advisor might help you perform some of your due diligence but don’t think of them as a replacement for due diligence! Do it yourself. Be thorough. Don’t rush.

Check out some of my other writing on due diligence including:

Use this strategy if your customers are going offshore instead of buying from you

A new client came to me recently because they were seeing many prospective customers moving their business offshore. The price disparity between buying from a North American supplier (my client) versus buying from a foreign (offshore) supplier was dramatic.

Although there is a lot going on here (in terms of economics, pricing, domestic-versus-foreign suppliers, shareholder pressure among customers, etc.), I want to focus on one simple strategy that can be used to help address this problem of buying from an offshore provider.

In a lot of industries companies used to buy locally because that was really the only option. Then the internet eliminated many of the cross-border buying barriers and suddenly countries that have a cheap labor market can underbid many domestic providers on nearly everything.

You see it in manufacturing; you see it in services. I noticed it when I was starting up my freelance writing business: I was bidding at a much higher price against freelance writers in India.

If you own a business that is facing the challenge of prospective customers who are going offshore for cheaper products and services, how do you win back that business?

YOU GET BACK INTO THE CONVERSATION

I recommend that you get back into the conversation. Specifically, you find a way to position yourself within the sales funnel of those offshore providers as a “checkpoint” that your customers will have to or want to cross before buying.

In my situation as a freelance writer years ago, I was able to get onto the same job-bidding platform and I used a variety of tools (especially pricing strategies and added value) to become a preferred service provider even if I wasn’t the cheapest. But another really helpful strategy was my book The Sales Funnel Bible which helped to demonstrate the importance of great marketing and sales copy all the way through the sales funnel. Prospective clients would read the book and come to understand that those offshore service providers might be cheap but they were just “order takers” – doing whatever work was assigned to them – while I always took my customers’ sales funnel into consideration when thinking about the work I was doing for them.

For a manufacturing client, I recommended that they do something similar: They need to investigate the offshore outsourcing marketplace in their specific industry and write a report on it. The report needs to be THE go-to resource on strategies and best practices to effectively outsource (domestically or internationally) and the report should implicitly position my client as a superior option. (There are many ways to do this effectively and ethically).

This helps put my manufacturing client back into the conversation: They become educators and advocates within their industry of effective outsourcing and they get back into the conversation – ultimately giving themselves a chance to show how their higher-priced product is still superior.

If you run a business that faces stiff competition that seems to be stealing away all of your customers, how can you get back into the conversation?

What to do if a competitor is stealing your customers

Early in my career I managed a retail store in a small town. There were only two such stores in town – mine and the competitor’s, and we worked just down the street from each other. For the most part, we each had our own customers but once in a while there was cross-over. His customers would come to my store and mine would go to his. Sometimes I’d see long-time customers of mine at his store and it was dismaying, but I know the reverse is true as well.

Competition is good for business and it’s fun. But it can also be cut throat (even when you maintain a professional, legal approach to your competitiveness).

Although you don’t always know when a competitor is stealing your customers, sometimes you do. Here’s what to do if your competitors are stealing your customers.

NOTE: When I say “stealing” I don’t mean it in an illegal way. There are rules and laws that companies need to play by and I’m making the assumption that both you and your competitor are in fact remaining compliant. When I say “stealing” I mean that your customers are going to your competitors and those competitors are happily serving them.

So here’s what to do…

  • First, decide if the customers are worth the effort. Some customers are not worth the effort. I recall one customer who threatened to go to the competition and it was welcome news to my ears because he bought from me so irregularly and was such a ridiculous amount of work that letting him go freed me up to serve more of my better customers.
  • Build a relationship with your customers. Don’t just tell them that they’re important to you (which is what most businesses do), show your customers that they’re important to you by taking an interest in their lives. For professionals like real estate agents and financial advisors (and some other similar professions), I always recommend that you truly get to know your customers. Send them birthday cards and call them. Send them flowers on their anniversary. If they play on a sports league, go to their games and cheer them on. Don’t be a stalker but be a friend. Check out these 61 questions to strengthen your client relationships and build loyalty.
  • Remind your customers of the value you provide. This is a huge complaint I have with a lot of companies (although if I were honest with myself I’d have to admit that I’m probably just as guilty of this). Once your customers are sold on purchasing from you, most businesses stop selling. But you have to continually “resell” to your existing customers and remind them why they’re buying from you. Otherwise they make the mistake of assuming that your competitor is exactly like you… and as soon as your competitor offers something cheaper, then loyalty is at risk.
  • Wow your customers. Truly wow them by shocking them with how unbelievable your service is. (Hint: This is rarely done).
  • Be proactive. Don’t wait for your customers to come to you. Go to them and help them see that they need to buy more of whatever you’re selling.
  • Constantly ask your customers how you can help. You may find more ways to extend your own products or services but you might not… helping your customers might mean simply understanding what challenges they have in life and making introductions to others who can help them.

The worrisome truth is: Competitors are stealing your customers because you aren’t demonstrating the most important thing: That you are indispensable. Demonstrate that you’re indispensable and prove it over and over again and your competition will eat your dust.