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

4/22/11Follow @wroush

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 … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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