Outlook should just cut e-mails off at five lines

Cut Off E-Mail At 5 Lines

We know, from some form of research, that human attention span has decreased over time — and we know that the average time someone reads an e-mail is about 30 seconds before they kind of lose the task/focus associated with it. 30 seconds is probably about 4-5 lines. We also know that 89 billion e-mails are sent for a business purpose in a given day — which essentially means that every single person on the planet might be sending 7-8 work e-mails a day, which of course isn’t true but damn, that’s a lot of e-mails — and we also know that the concept of “e-mail hacks” or “pursuit of Inbox Zero” has become a cottage industry in its own right.

Maybe it’s time for a bold solution.

Alright, so trace the narrative thread:

  • There is a lot of e-mail.
  • People consistently complain about e-mail and look for ways to have less of it.
  • Ironically, for some reason those same people don’t tend to consider “knowledge management” or “Intranet” options, which would take a lot of the discussions off e-mail.
  • (It’s also possible that people secretly love e-mail because it keeps them busy, and being busy is the currency of the modern age.)
  • We need some type of solution to “the e-mail problem,” because people will just keep sending more and more e-mails.

By the way, before we continue — watch this video about how ridiculous e-mail is. It’s a good video, I promise:

Now, different companies use different e-mail clients — Google, Apple, whatever else — but Outlook, as a whole, still has some degree of popularity in most businesses.

Here’s what Outlook should do as a feature in its next rollout:

Literally make it impossible for people to send an e-mail of over 5 lines.

Would that ever work? Probably not.

But let’s say it could work for a second. Here’s what would happen:

  • If you had a big idea to convey, but your e-mail client isn’t letting you send more than five lines, you’d probably need to go actually talk to people. That’s a good thing.
  • It would force people to get to the core of their message, which is also a good thing in terms of how we work.
  • E-mail is the single-biggest distraction element to a workday. The single-biggest. If you cut e-mails down to 5 lines, you free up some time for other things.

In reality, what would probably happen for most people is that (a) they’d send more attachments, which no one would read and/or (b) every e-mail would be “Got 5 mins? Thx” to meet the line quota.

The other thing Outlook should consider doing — make it impossible for one user to schedule more than 3 meetings in a week. Of course, people could subvert this by just having other people schedule the meetings, but meetings are the other major time-suck of our work lives.

If we threw controls in place to better manage e-mail and meetings, wouldn’t that be nice? (Sadly, this seems easier than just “rethinking work,” because that seems a little too high-level for most people I’ve ever worked with.)

Ted Bauer