Could a Game Be the Answer to Your E-mail Woes?

E-mail is the great savior and scourge of our time. We couldn’t get much done without it. Yet as regular readers know, I have an ongoing feud with my inbox. I’ve declared e-mail bankruptcy (twice), I’ve adopted tools like Taskforce that help turn e-mails into to-do list items, and I’ve tried filtering options like Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature. Nothing seems to help with my fundamental problem, which is that I get at least 200 e-mail messages every day. If I gave just 60 seconds to each message, on average, I’d still be spending three to four hours a day doing nothing but battling my inbox.

I’m always on the lookout for ideas that might help, and I think I’ve found a new one. It’s a Web app called The Email Game, and it’s from Baydin, a Boston-born company that Xconomy has covered in the past. Specifically, my colleague Erin wrote a great piece last fall about Baydin founder Alex Moore’s $100,000 taxi ride. Moore, the story goes, responded to a tweet from legendary Silicon Valley angel investor Dave McClure, who wrote: “YO: need ride from Bucks/Woodside 2 Toyota/MtView @ 9:45am – will hear startup pitch in yr car; can a brother get a lift? Use #PitchVCtaxi.” Being nearby at the time, Moore obliged, and his pitch on the way to the Toyota dealership turned McClure into a Baydin investor.

Baydin, which was part of the 2009 class at the TechStars Boston venture incubator and is now based in Silicon Valley, is best known for a Gmail plugin called Boomerang. As the name implies, the plugin expels messages from your inbox with instructions to come back at a specified date in the future when you’ll presumably have more time to deal with them. I haven’t used Boomerang much, mainly because I feel like I’ll never really have more time—so sending an e-mail to myself in the future just delays the inevitable and increases my e-mail burden when the date comes.

But the Email Game is a different story. I’m really seeing the promise in this one, and it has already saved me a ton of time.

The idea behind the app is simple: it uses features borrowed from the video game world, including a countdown clock and a point system, to encourage you to plow through your Gmail inbox faster. For each e-mail, you might decide to respond to it, file it away, archive it, or delete it; the faster you make that decision, the more points you rack up. The goal is to get messages out of your inbox. So if you skip one—that is, if you just leave it in your inbox—points get taken away. After you’ve dispatched 30, 50, or 100 messages (you can set the number), the app stops and shows you your score.

How can such a simple, arguably frivolous game reduce your e-mail woes? It comes down to this: when there’s a clock ticking and points at stake, you’re less tempted to spend a lot of time crafting an e-mail reply or agonizing over whether to follow through on some sort of action request. The incentive is to swiftly delete or archive the unimportant messages and compose quick replies to the ones that merit a response. For messages that require a more time-consuming action, you can always pause the timer, skip them altogether (though this will cost you points), or boomerang them.

Just yesterday, I used the Email Game to get through 100 emails in about 17 minutes and 23 seconds, or about 10 seconds per email. It was a very intense 17 minutes, and I wouldn’t exactly say, as Baydin’s tag line puts it, that the app “Makes E-mail Fun Again.” But there’s no way I would have gotten through that many messages without the game. Now there are only 5,149 messages left in my inbox. I figure that if I can just play the game for 15 hours straight at the same pace, I’ll get through all of them.

Moore says he keeps his own inbox under control by playing the Email Game twice a day—once in the morning and once before knocking off work. Interestingly, he says he was never a big fan of the idea of inserting game mechanics into everyday activities, the way companies like Foursquare or SCVNGR have trying to do for the last few years. “I had a little bit of contempt for the whole gamification thing,” he says.

But he says he had an “aha” moment about game features last year after returning from a three-day trip to attend a friend’s wedding. “When I came back and had 230 unread messages, after weeks of being so good about my inbox, I just looked at that giant message list and stared, then decided to go off and play Total War.” That’s a SEGA computer game involving armies that clash over Europe. “I spent the entire night playing, and ended up taking over Italy. It was several days later that it popped into my head—if I had just taken that time to go through my messages, I would have been done. Trying to take over Italy was way more ambitious than trying to get through my inbox, but it didn’t feel that way.” Perhaps the key to managing e-mail, Moore speculated, was to make it feel more like a game.

So Baydin hired a summer intern to code up a basic version of the Email Game, and the company released the first version of the app in September. It’s since been widely written up in publications ranging from Technology Review to the New York Times, and cited as an example of a trend toward the gamification of work. (Which, by the way, is one of the subjects of a new book called Game On by Jon Radoff, founder of Boston-based social game publisher Disruptor Beam.)

Moore thinks there are three factors that make the Email Game effective. First, it promotes focus—the game interface takes away all distractions and just shows you the one e-mail you need to process before the clock runs out. Second, it limits choice: your options are limited to replying, labeling, archiving, skipping, deleting, or boomeranging a message. Finally, the game provides encouragement, including deliberately goofy badges that pop up after each action (they say things like “Right on!” and “Radical!”). “It feels like accomplishing something and making headway,” says Moore.

Baydin has rolled out an enterprise version of the Email Game so that companies can offer the app to their employees (at $20 per seat per month). Of course, there’s still plenty of room left for Baydin to improve the game. For one thing, I think there ought to be a way for a user to compete with friends, instead of just seeing his or her own score. And it would help if there were a way to launch and operate the game from within Gmail, instead of having to go to a separate website. Moore says such integration could be coming in a future update. But at the same time, “Part of why the game works is that it feels different than a normal inbox,” he argues. “We think that separation is really important, because the inbox has come to feel like a place you go to drown instead of a place where you feel in control.”

I can certainly attest to that. I’m planning to use the game to gradually empty out my inbox, and then to help keep it empty. Moore says Baydin’s investors, including SimplyHired co-founder Peter Weck, K9 Ventures founder Manu Kumar, and TechStars co-founder David Cohen, are all using the game to stay on top of their own e-mail.

But what about Dave McClure? “Dave is not the ideal guy for this,” says Moore. “He gets a mind-boggling amount of e-mail. Everybody in the world wants to pitch a company to him. We’ve done our damnedest [to get McClure to use the Email Game] but with 44,000 unread messages, I think he has gone with the philosophy ‘I’ll hit some and I’ll miss some.'” Which might just be the ultimate solution to e-mail stress.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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