Why Notification Emails Are Bad

Unlike many others, I don’t hate emails. There are scenarios where email is the most effective communication option. Today, however, we’ll talk about the worst possible use case for using emails: automatic notifications. If there were an option to make these emails magically disappear from my inbox forever, I would be the first to use it. What’s so bad about notification emails? I’m glad you asked!

Let’s start with the obvious. If you are getting email notifications from your task-management system, your shared content repository, or any other system you use to organize your work, it is because there’s something allegedly important waiting for you there. You might be late handling a task, or some new information was added, or somebody has mentioned you in some context. All these cases might require your attention, but as soon as the tenth notification is in your inbox, you automatically ignore all of them. 

The reality is that the more notifications we have, the less likely we are to address them. To make things worse, many organizational information systems don’t have good control over the granularity of notification emails. If you are notified when you are “mentioned,” you will be notified regardless of the context or who has mentioned you. If you are notified when the content of a task has changed, you’d probably be notified of any change, as esoteric as fixing a typo. 

All these are real problems in any notification mechanism, but when the outcome is a tsunami of emails, things get overwhelmingly worse because email clients are flat by default. In other words, if I have 100 notifications in my inbox, chances are they will overshadow the three important emails that actually require a response. Of course, when we realize that, the obvious solution is to automatically route the notification emails to some long-forgotten folder and get them out of the way, which means we will not see them at all. If that’s not a good enough reason to get rid of these emails, I don’t know what is. 

Still, there are things we need to know. Information changes, tasks are updated, and some are overdue. Notifications were invented for a good reason; killing them altogether is probably not the most effective approach. 

The solution lies at the source of the notifications. We need to gain back control over when we review our tasks. We need to control when we check for updates. Just like we review our emails daily, we can check any other tools at fixed times and on our own terms. 

If I set an hour to review and update my task list, it would be a better use of my time than getting twenty notifications from my task management system at arbitrary times. More focus, fewer distractions, and addressing things in their natural context (which is never the inbox). 

In-app notifications can be helpful when we need to see what has changed or if something requires our attention. The minute they cross over to our email inbox, they become nothing more than noise.

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