Productivity In The Age of Zero Marginal Cost

I’ve been using some new productivity tools lately that I’m very excited about: Remember the Milk (RTM) and Evernote (EN). 

They are described below, but I wanted to first mention one commonality between them that I expect to spread from these products to other products and hopefully to most email we send. 

As emails arrive in our inbox, we only have a few signals as to their importance: sender (boss versus Netflix), time (0300 versus 1000 email from boss), and subject line (Urgent: On fire versus Enter Chance to Win a Flowbee).  However, all of these are decreasing in their abilities to help us prioritise, and we need more productivity tools to counter their decline.

If memory serves, when I started using email, I felt the subject line was my friend.  I thought a carefully crafted subject line would induce the appropriate, timely response I desired.  Clearly, people are so inundated with emails today that the subject line, and I would argue the other signals like time and sender, are becoming less relevant. 

Both RTM and EN allow users to add tasks or notes via email.  Additionally, they both utilise syntax in the subject line to categorize, prioritise, and file the contents of the email.  For example, if I want send myself a reminder to take out the trash tonight at home with a high priority, I would send this subject line to my RTM email: Take out Trash today #errand @home !1.  RTM converts this into a task on my to-do list with the appropriate attributes. 

This innovation is important for at least two reasons.  First, it signals the death of the subject line as content summary.  Shortly, subject lines won’t be used at all to summarize content but only to prioritise content.  Second, I think this pattern is a signal from the marketplace showing what many of us have known and experienced for several years now: email is now a hindrance to productivity.  I would suggest that our productivity plotted against volume of email looks something like the Laffer curve:


Photo: Roger Dean Huffstetler


Most of us are well past the point of equilibrium on this graph, and we’re busy sorting, organising, and sometimes replying to emails.  And, while I do think RTM and EN are providing a genuinely good prioritizing and organising tool, it is just a Band-Aid.  There is only really one cure for this productivity decline: resource constraints. 

The only resource constraint currently on pruning our email accounts is our time.  It’s not infinite and hopefully we’re not all ignoring our opportunity costs either.  Currently, the cost of production and distribution of email is simply too small, and the only way to change this is to impose some constraints.  The system needs more boundaries to move the productivity curve back to equilibrium. 

A terrific experiment to perform would be to constrain an individual inbox to a limited, discrete number of emails per days, perhaps 30.  After that, each message would be bounced back to the sender with a message, perhaps it would like this:

“I am allowed to send and receive 30 emails per day.  I have exceeded that allotment and now must spend my day productively creating or consuming analysis with the rest of my team, who also now have time to talk about it.  If it’s that important, please feel free to call me.  Otherwise, hope we can connect tomorrow.”

This sounds crazy, right?  You couldn’t possibly only send and receive 30 emails a day?!?!?  The implicit assumption you are making when you reply to that incremental email is that your incremental time is worthless.  We are all neglecting to account for the opportunity cost of attending to our email, and we need to make a collective decision to artificially constrain the system.  It’s the only way to bend the productivity curve back in a meaningful way. 

I think a strong argument can be made for a flexible constraint  that bends given certain criteria like time of year (month), day of the week, etc.  In fact, perhaps this is an even better system because it would reject a certain number of emails per hour (per minute, God help you).  Additionally, maybe you could have a favourite Five whose emails are always delivered to your inbox despite any outside conditions.  But the take away message is the same.  The marginal cost of production and distribution of an email is essentially zero now , and that cost must increase to rebalance asynchronous communication as medium for increased productivity. 

And now for a look at those productivity tools:


RTM: Cloud to-do list

Pros: iPhone App, syntax-centered sorting, cross-platform synchronisation

Cons: Web interface

The iPhone app is really top notch,  allowing you to view by list, priority, location.  The Smart Add syntax, to add to-dos via email, is fairly intuitive.  For example, you can geotag tasks by marking them @Home or @Work in the subject line (assuming these are preset locations).  Other attributes like priority, list, time interval, and repetition are also available through  Smart Add (  You can also add tasks via Twitter if you DM @RTM. 

I also like that I can sync folders across different platform, e.g. Google calendar and Outlook.  I can sync my tasks with Google tasks; checking them off in one place eliminates them from my to-do list.  Furthermore, you can selectively sync certain folders.  I do just that with my #Work folder between RTM and my work Outlook.  The web interface is my only real issue with this product.

Evernote:   Cloud catch-all

Pros: iPhone & iPad apps, desktop app, syntax-centered sorting, ability to email notes

Cons: no to-do list function

I have no idea what a day without Evernote looks like.  Where would I write down my latest thoughts?  Where would I store the return addresses from the folks who sent us Holiday cards?  Where would I keep my favourite quotes?  Evernote to the rescue.

EN supports Notebooks and Tags.  These functions are very helpful if you want to place two projects in the same, e.g. Work, but keep them separate for quick filling and searching.  Evernote supports snapshots (good for business cards) and voice memos.  Finally, they have this great ladder function on the iPhone that lets you quickly scroll up and down your different folders. 

They have some of the same great email smart add functions of RTM (although different syntax):  Again, you can have much of the same functionality from Twitter by DMing @MyEN.

The web interface is better than RTM but still not nearly as good as it should be.  It is unclear to me why EN doesn’t have better to-do list support.  You can make items into to-dos, but it cumbersome and not easy to sort and use.

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