Michael Arrington’s Inbox is Fat!

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Michael Arrington has 2400+ unread emails in his inbox. And he needs someone to fix it.

If you are the person with the idea to save us all, send me an email and tell me all about it. Actually, strike that. Drop by my house and tell me all about it. I don’t want your message to get lost in my inbox.

Michael Arrington

Michael is looking for the email equivalent of a magic diet pill. He can’t change his behavior, so he needs a dietary supplement. The dieting-market is huge, and products succeed playing on that emotion for dieters. Is email management the same?

You’ve Got (Way Too Much) Mail

Are you completely overwhelmed with email? There are two fundamental ways to approach solving the problem of having too much email. The first is to change the way you work. The Getting Things Done people have all-but-formed a religion around changing how they work. A master-stroke for David Allen. But you – if you’re reading this, you already heard of GTD, and at least one of the (at least 92) companies that has developed products to make it easier for you to change. But apparently that didn’t work for you. Or Michael Arrington.


The best way to diet is to eat sensibly and get exercise. A well-balanced diet with more calories burned than consumed will make you lose weight. Steadily and sensibly. It always works, and it is “the right way to do it.” USA Today reported in 2005 that 62% of American adults are overweight. I am unwilling to believe that that stems from ignorance. People know how they should eat and exercise. They just don’t want to.

People with weight problems are perceived to desire a solution that does not require them to change their behavior. An odd diet, an arcane supplement, a magic pill. Something that lets them lose weight without changing their behavior. Or they try and change their behavior, but it just doesn’t stick.

Maybe that’s what happens to people who have lost control of their email. They try changing behavior, and that doesn’t work. And now they are looking for a magic pill.

No Pain, No Gain

Pain, in the market, translates to profits for the people who alleviate it. I attended Pragmatic Marketing’s product management training a couple years ago, and Barb Nelson presented a compelling argument for addressing pain in the market. She used Dr. Scholl’s shoe inserts as an example. Their products address people’s foot pain. They make for a great example for a traveling instructor because they are light and they pack flat. Maybe that’s why I remember them.

Before I attended that class, being an optimist, I was always looking for opportunities, not problems. I realized after listening to Barb that calling a problem an opportunity is fine when you want to motivate yourself to solve it. But when you want to motivate your customers to pay you to solve it, every opportunity looks better as a problem.

Michael sums it up well:

The volume of communication requests for most people today are far, far beyond what they can handle. Few people today respond to every communication they receive. And an increasing number don’t even claim to be able to read every communication they receive, let alone respond.


That is definitely pain.

As soon as you start imagining the ROI for solving this problem, you start thinking of lost opportunities, misunderstandings, past-due bills… There’s money to be saved by your customers. And therefore, money to be made. Email is so ingrained in the mass-consciousness now that you could sell people a solution based entirely on emotional appeal. The USA today article pointed out that being overweight has been a growing problem for decades. That problem has emotional roots too. The same type of message could work for email.

Get all the email you want. Respond to what you need to. And don’t worry about it. Keep using your current email solution, and watch your inbox dwindle away to nothing, shedding those excess mails overnight!


People’s desire to gain with no pain leads to your gain from their pain. In Spain. In the rain.

Design The Magic Email Pill

magic pills

OK. So all we have to do now is design the magic email pill. Let’s see if brainstorming will work on a blog post.

In a comment, either

  1. Describe how email pain manifests for you. How does dealing with your email hurt? OR
  2. Describe a possible technology solution (feature, capability) that will help one of the pain points. OR
  3. Describe how you think about email and using your email system (which do you use). OR
  4. Describe how this problem has already been solved.

This is a fun topic to think about.

4 thoughts on “Michael Arrington’s Inbox is Fat!

  1. When it comes to email, I think there are only three things you can do – none of them technological except good spam filtering: Get Fewer, Get Faster, and Get Control. That is, reduce volume, process more efficiently, and put email in the correct perspective – a tool, not a way of life :-)

    More here, if you’re interested: http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/10/got-email-blues-only-three-things-you.html

    Also, the diet comparison is an apt one – it highlights choice. We must be on the same wavelength – I wrote: What GTD And Weight Watchers Have In Common


  2. Hey Matthew –

    Welcome to Tyner Blain and thanks for the comments!

    On a personal level, I agree with you completely. And that’s part of why I chose the dieting comparison. I also believe that there is a lot of money to be made providing products that attempt to address (and actually help, while not completely resolving) problems.

    Everyone – go read Matthew’s links – the first really spells out an approach to changing behavior such that it reduces email. The second is a very interesting analysis of how our “old brains” get in the way of our new environments (excess email/information and excess food).

    Thanks for sharing those with us!

  3. The usefulness of email as a communication tool tends to mirror a narrow bell curve (for those statisticians out there, I know that part of the bell curve is it’s relationship to the population and standard deviations from the mean, but it’s the shape I’m after here, not the distribution).

    When you get very few emails, your email app is not typically a powerful tool for you since it doesn’t hold very much information and is only really useful for broadcasting. As email volume increases, the importance of the email application and its content starts to increase dramatically, which begets more email, but we quickly reach a threshold where the amount of time and effort required to process and maintain our email system outstrips the value of the information contained in it. This is compounded by both the number of email accounts/applications you use (active and passive) and the changing signal-to-noise ratio (the more email you get, the more likely that it’s more noise than signal).

    An added factor is that there is a vanity component to email overload. The amount of email you receive is perceived as proportional to your importance, which explains the proliferation of mobile email devices amongst both corporate and personal users.

    Think of processing email the way a bear thinks about catching fish in a river. The bear could wade out to the middle of the river and try to grab the fish as they swim by, but being in the middle of the river makes it difficult to not only select a fish to catch but the current of rushing water also acts as a force that pushes against the bear even when it’s not trying to catch a fish. Tiring and not very effective.

    It’s better for the bear to stand on the edge of the river and pluck the fish out of the water as it swims by. It doesn’t have the opportunity to catch every fish, but the effort expended is in more in line with the benefits of the catch.

    Pluck your emails out of the river instead of trying to catch them all.

  4. Hey Ivan – great insights! Haven’t heard from you for a while – welcome back!

    I love the analogy of bears catching fish.

    I still believe that there are product opportunities that would (using your bell curve model) skew the “effectiveness” range, allowing people to gain value from larger inboxes.

    I’ll use a river metaphor too.

    With “existing solutions”, you are panning for gold. Why not just stand at the side and swish water around in your screen, instead of going to all that work to stand in the middle of the river? You still get (roughly) the same amount of gold, for a lot less effort.

    With “a new solution”, you could potentially be redirecting the flow of the river with hydraulics to blast more water and sediment through stationary screens, increasing the yield of your efforts dramatically.

    I think that’s the product opportunity.

    That said, I still contend that behavior is the only way to “completely” address the issue. But the right technology could make it better.

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