Cheers. Literally, cheers. When I speak at companies like Cisco and implore employees to find email alternatives, they erupt. That's how much corporate America hates email. I'm not surprised. We're drowning in it. The average worker receives 200 a day, according to the research firm Basex. What's worse, there's a lot of important stuff trapped in those messages, but if you're armed only with Microsoft Outlook, which treats all messages the same, good luck plucking out the pearls.
Not all email is created equal. Newsletters, status updates, and so forth aren't nearly as relevant to us as a personal note from the boss. What we need are tools that add context and make the inbox less a dumping ground than a jumping-off point for managing our most important projects and relationships. Thankfully, there are a raft of very exciting tools — many of them free — that can help you prioritize email and even avoid it altogether. (Yes, really.)
If I were going to recommend only one tool, ClearContext (clearcontext.com; free for personal use, $90 per seat for project management) offers the most immediate productivity gains. The Outlook add-on looks at who you're replying to and how often, then automatically prioritizes the messages. It color-codes the most pressing ones, graying out mass emails. This is a small thing, but it minimizes a torrent to a manageable few. ClearContext removes that dread we feel when we open our inbox.
ClearContext has all kinds of smart functions, such as grouping related emails together so you can more easily follow a conversation and spotlighting all attachments. It also distinguishes the boilerplate so-and-so-confirmed-your-friend-request notifications from the notices you might actually care about.
There are other tools you should check out which add to ClearContext's value. ActiveWords (activewords.com; $30 per person annually) lets you script common email answers, a great time-saver if you interact with customers and field the same questions over and over. Both Web-based Gist and Xobni — another Outlook extra, and yes, that's "inbox" spelled backward — give you dashboards that spotlight crucial data about your contacts, the kind of info that's typically buried in your inbox and a hassle to rediscover. For example, if you look up any person you've corresponded with in Xobni (xobni.com; free), it showcases his phone number if he has ever sent it to you. In that same vein, Gist (gist.com; free) pulls out any links you've shared with a colleague for easy access.
More important, Gist searches news feeds and blogs for information about the people you email. So if a colleague closes a funding round, the news pops up in your dashboard and you can fire off a congratulatory note very easily. If I were in sales, I couldn't imagine living without this extra bit of info that lets you deliver that personal touch and strengthen relationships.
As much as I like these tools, the best way to improve your email experience is to follow the advice I gave those Cisco employees: Take some conversations elsewhere. If you need to write a press release or a report, and 10 other people need to modify or approve it, you're much better off using an online word-processing tool such as Google Docs or Adobe's Buzzword. One email invites everyone to join the collaborative workspace, then everyone can make changes or leave notes on the document itself. No revision tracking. No full inbox.
Now that's email productivity.
Go to FastCompany.TV for exclusive video of Scoble interviewing ClearContext CEO Deva Hazarika and Gist CEO T.A. McCann.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.