A Low-Fi Solution to E-Mail Overload: Sentenc.es

I’ve written about e-mail overload issues in the past, and today I’m presenting what I believe is a simple, low-fi solution: sentenc.es.

In a nutshell, I have two issues with e-mail:

  • More than any other medium in the world, the time commitment difference between sender and receiver is huge. For instance, if you call me on the phone and we chat for 10 minutes, that’s 10 minutes of your time and 10 minutes of my time. If you write me a handwritten letter and I write you one back, that’s maybe 30 minutes of your time and 30 minutes of my time. If we exchange text messages, that’s 10 seconds from you and 10 seconds from me. But with email, often times the sender will ask two or three open-ended one sentence questions which elicit multi-paragraph answers. In these cases, the sender spends one minute and the receiver is asked, implicitly, to spend maybe an hour.
  • When faced with an inbox of 100-400 messages, I usually find myself replying to the messages which are quickest to reply to, rather than which are most important to reply to. The end result is a continual paring down of my inbox until I have 50 really important messages to reply to which are then too old to take care of.

In thinking about how to reduce this problem for me personally, I came up with a technology solution which, while cool, would require way too much buy-in from OS makers, mail application providers, and individuals. Essentially, whenever you send me an e-mail, I’d like to be able to instantly pop up a Toast or Growl message on your desktop for a few seconds with a status message of my choice. Something like “Current response time estimate: 7 days” or something more personable. I don’t like auto-responder e-mails because I’m not trying to clog up your inbox, but the ability to send you a quick, fleeting status message would be excellent. Perhaps even when you just hover over my name in the To: field before you even send the mail.

Annnnnnnyways… that solution is a bit too hi-fi and it doesn’t really solve the core problem, so instead I’m enacting a new policy today which seems potentially much more effective:

Every e-mail I send to anyone, regardless of subject or recipient, will be five sentences or less. Like a cinquain. Ideally, it would be a 160 character count like an SMS message, but since that would require an actual e-mail plug-in (viz. “work”), we’ll go with the much-easier-to-count concept of sentences instead.

In order to politely explain the systematic brevity with a similar amount of brevity, I will link to a new site I just set up called five.sentenc.es in my signature line. By ensuring that all e-mails I send out take the same amount of time to send (viz. “not a lot”), I am evening the playing field between emails and attending to many more of them in the end.

Observe the difference:

Incoming Email:

From: Joe Student
To: Mike Davidson

Hi Mike. I’m a design student at PCU and I was wondering what your top ten tips for getting a great design job out of college are?

Old Policy:

From: Mike Davidson
To: Joe Student

Hi Joe. Thanks so much for the email. Here is what I’d recommend:

1. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc.

2. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit.

3. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue.

4. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst.

5. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor.

6. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit.

7. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim.

8. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet.

9. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum.

10. Proin eget elit id augue pretium lacinia. In nec libero nec purus fermentum semper. Phasellus mollis cursus dolor. Nunc felis turpis, tristique et, elementum non, iaculis ut, urna. Nullam eu velit. Aliquam dapibus gravida felis. Morbi tortor. Sed egestas nonummy neque. Nulla nec nunc. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Duis velit arcu, pretium faucibus, dictum a, nonummy ac, augue. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Donec dignissim. Duis gravida mollis tortor. Quisque convallis sagittis elit. Curabitur laoreet tempor enim. Nunc imperdiet. Phasellus convallis consectetuer nibh. Aliquam non tortor. Maecenas a ante quis purus euismod rutrum. Praesent gravida, orci vel placerat adipiscing, nulla velit eleifend nisl, eget elementum erat lacus vitae ligula.

Best of luck, Joe!

Mike

New Policy:

From: Mike Davidson
To: Joe Student

Thanks very much for the e-mail, Joe.
Concentrate on your networking, your portfolio, and your friendliness.
In this business, it’s mainly about who you know and how good your stuff looks.
Take care of those two things, be a cool guy, and the rest will fall into place.
Don’t worry about how big your clients are, because nobody cares about that stuff.

All the best,

Mike

———————————————————————-
Q: Why is this email 5 sentences or less?
A: http://five.sentenc.es

Huge difference. What makes it all the more easy is that before I even give my response, I already know it’s going to be five sentences max, so there is little reason to procrastinate about it. And on top of that, if the occasion is right, you can even start rhyming and turn it into a legitimate cinquain.

So that’s it. The super low-fi, systematic solution to e-mail overload. It’s in beta now, but you feel free to link to five.sentenc.es in your own e-mails, or any of the sister sites at two.sentenc.es, three.sentenc.es, or four.sentenc.es depending on your desired level of brevity. Special thanks to the government of Spain for making this possible.

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174 Responses:

  1. […] certainly isn’t the first to write about the the problems with email – Mike Davidson’s solution last year was to reduce the length and detail of replies to a specific number of sentences, but […]

  2. […] 5 sentence emails. Limit your responses to 5 sentences. It’ll force you to just write the essential stuff, and limit the time you spend […]

  3. […] 5 sentence emails. Limit your responses to 5 sentences. It’ll force you to just write the essential stuff, and limit the time you spend […]

  4. […] (Mike Davidson [here is the original post]) […]

  5. […] (Mike Davidson [here is the original post]) […]

  6. […] Mike Davidson: A Low-Fi Solution to E-Mail Overload: Sentenc.es – how do reduce the inbox choke without being rude […]

  7. […] me suis vue lire des blogs d’américains à minuit expliquant comment on pouvait être plus efficace pour répondre à ses mails: je vous […]

  8. […] sentenc.es, a method for dealing with email overload in a simple and lo-fi way. I could relate to Mike’s thoughts on email when he said: When faced with an inbox of 100-400 messages, I usually find myself replying to the messages which […]

  9. […] overload got you down? Mike Davidson suggests sentenc.es — i.e. five.sentenc.es — a quick, polite way to explain to people why your emails are […]

  10. […] Mike D: The Five-Sentence Email Rule […]

  11. […] phrase : J’ai eu cette idée de Mike Davidson , dont l’article est venu avec un timing parfait car je limitais d’autres choses dans […]

  12. […] emails. This works well if you spend too much time writing emails. I got the idea from Mike Davidson, who advocates limiting each email to five sentences or fewer. This forces you to keep your emails […]

  13. […] Davidson wrote a great post, titled  “A Low-Fi Solution To Email Overload: Sentenc.es”, where he explains his idea in detail: “Every e-mail I send to anyone, regardless of subject […]

  14. […] Here’s an interesting idea: sentenc.es. […]

  15. Just read about this in the Lifehacker book “Upgrade Your Life.” Excellent idea that has helped me save some time at work.

  16. […] Mike D: The Five-Sentence Email Rule […]

  17. While I understand that keeping mails short may save some time, I can;t understand how people can castrate themself by making this a general rule. Especially since the efforts to fit all the to-be-transmitted information in such constraints (like e.g. the 160 characters of a short message) takes more time than just write it the way you want to write it.

    So here’s my answer to http://two.sentenc.es/: http://e-mail.is-not-s.ms/

    See also my blog post at http://noone.org/blog/English/Computer/Mail/e-mail.is-not-s.ms.futile

    P.S.: No offense, just had to oppose something to this movement. :-)

  18. Mike D. says:

    Hi Axel: Be my guest, but I think you’re missing the point a bit. The point isn’t to sacrifice grammar, spelling, or writing prowess. It’s simply brevity for the sake of courtesy and efficiency. One’s appetite for this philosophy is directly proportional to the daily quantity of e-mail one is expected to respond to. If it’s less than 5, it’s unnecessary. If it’s 5-20, it can be helpful. If it’s more than 20, it has undeniable utility.

  19. […] since it’s a minimal week, what could be more minimal than Mike Davidson’s Five-Sentence Email solution. It’s simple: every single email you send must be five sentences or […]

  20. Regis says:

    Mike – this is a fantastic idea! I frequently talk about “matching the message to the medium” (for example, how email is right for certain communications but not others).

    Your idea about a 5 sentence limit goes will with this approach, and has made email fun again for me!

    Now I have a challenge – get my point across in 5 sentences or less.

    This goes really well with other “mindful limitation” techniques like paring down email to only the essential, processing my inbox to empty, and not having an elaborate email filing system to have to maintain.

    Thanks for the great idea!

  21. Mark says:

    @Axel – The problem that you described is not the same as the solution that Mike is recommending. While you like to think your site is a parody of Mike’s, I think this is really your way of deflecting direct criticism. All in all, it appears to me that you’re trying to create something controversial to ride on the success of Mike’s idea.

    @Mike – Today, I’ve inserted your site into my signature. I’m only going to put it into replies for now (not NEW messages) since I still need to keep my contact info intact when sending out new emails.

  22. Lara Mae says:

    Have you tried Nubli.com yet? Nubli prioritize your inbox to high, medium and low priority, this way you can read what is important first.
    They have an iphone app too..

  23. Chris says:

    The signature should read “five sentences or fewer”, not “five sentences or less”. To do otherwise is “incorrect in standard English”, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary.

    This is not a question of common usage — “less” is just wrong in this situation. It actually does matter.

  24. Mike D. says:

    Chris: As has been debated above, “less” appears to either be correct or at the very least acceptable in this case. Reason being, I’m using “sentences” as a measurement.

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