Jeff Atwood writes about e-mail in Email: The Variable Reinforcement Machine. He's right: people are using the e-mail system badly.
E-mail is not suitable for all sorts of communication: anything that requires high bandwidth or is easily misunderstood is probably best handle face-to-face or on the phone. Success e-mail use does require attention; but then, so does all other form of communication.
Like many others, part of his solution is to convert people to use other conduits for communication, and in this he makes a mistake. He suggests people switch to proprietary silos such as Twitter, and Facebook. This is an utter abomination. It ruins the ability of people to reach each other, unless they all agree to kiss their privacy and freedom goodbye.
In the end, the real problem with e-mail is not the technology, and it's not other people. It's you. If you waste much time on e-mail, you're doing it wrong.
The amount of time you spend on e-mail is only marginally dependent on the amount of e-mail you get, and mainly dependent on your own skills in processing e-mail.
The top seven skills in efficient processing of e-mails:
- Archive e-mail automatically. There's no point in wasting time doing it manually.
- Delete e-mails from your inbox(es) as soon as you're done with them. If you've read it, delete it. If you need to respond to it, or need it to do some task, move it to a dedicated folder. An inbox is only for stuff you haven't read yet. (http://inboxzero.com/ really works, as does the full GTD system.) If your e-mails are archived upon arrival, you can always safely remove them from your inbox.
- Respond at once. If it takes less than a couple of minutes, do it at once, then delete the e-mail and never bother with it again.
- Stop useless e-mail. Unsubscribe from mailing lists, unless you really need them. Stop people from sending jokes to the company-wide list (set up a separate joke list?). If you can't stop them from sending useless stuff to you, learn to filter it so you never see it. (If you do the filtering after archiving, you can filter pretty freely, safe in the knowledge that you can dig up a mis-filtered e-mail from the archive if need be.)
- Skim. Almost always, important e-mails are easy to spot and everything else can be quickly skimmed and then discarded. Often whole novels' worth of e-mails can be discarded based on the subject line.
- Do e-mail in batches. There is no point in monitoring your inboxes constantly. E-mail by nature is not speed critical (and anyone who treats it as such will lose). So read e-mail every morning, lunchtime, and evening. Or whatever schedule works for you. You don't have to have fixed times: you can do it between other tasks, or while waiting for the computer to run a test suite, or whatever fits you. Just don't keep the e-mail app open and demanding attention all the time.
- Use a competent spam filter. At best, I've received over 4000 e-mails per day, around 80-90% of it spam. Either bogofilter or crm114 are able to get rid of all but a dozen or so spams, with no false positives for weeks, at best (that's when I stopped keeping track).
Use e-mail for what it's meant for: asynchronous, non-time-critical correspondence. Moving that stuff to some other system will only solve problems temporarily. Eventually the new system will have useless time-wasters flooding it, too.