Do you always have the radio on in the background?
From the moment I wake up in the morning until I get out of the car at the office, the radio spews its news out at me (I find news more stimulating than music).
That was true until recently, when my car radio stopped working. After a few quiet journeys with no radio blaring at me, I suddenly realized that solutions to a number of problems I had been mulling over had popped into my head while driving.
I can’t prove the science behind it, but I know intuitively that when the radio, TV or MP3 player is on, it continuously stimulates our sensory inputs with relatively useless information. This suppresses our own original and creative thoughts that would otherwise fill the void. (By constantly saturating our inputs with irrelevant chatter, could we be subconsciously “protecting” ourselves against having to deal with such things?)
So next time you have the urge to hose yourself down with a torrent of mind-numbing auditory input, try listening to your own mind for a while instead.
You really have to be careful what you write in an email – you never know where it may end up…
This out-of-office automatic response message made it onto a bilingual road sign in Wales!
If you don’t understand Welsh, here’s what the Welsh version says:
"I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated".
[via Ferris Research]
I recently had the good fortune to be invited to talk about SpeedFiler and the problems it can solve, in a special Productivity Tools broadcast on Wayne Turmel’s Cranky Middle Manager Show (part of The Podcast Network).
The Cranky Middle Manager Show is an irreverent but insightful look at the world of middle management. Host Wayne Turmel vents, offers humorous commentary and talks to the smartest people in the field about management techniques, career strategies and just keeping it together day after day. If you ever feel stuck between the idiots that make the decisions and the morons who won’t do as they’re told, this is the show for you.
Thanks, Wayne, for the opportunity to participate in your show.
(Tip: listen to the show if you’d like a discount coupon for SpeedFiler.)
Today’s Washington Post carries an article about an increasing number of people who find themselves having to declare email bankruptcy.
The article is full of sad cases of people who think that declaring email bankruptcy will solve their problem. It won’t. I’ve talked about why email bankruptcy is worse in some ways than financial bankruptcy, and this shows why email bankruptcy is not a solution.
Just as people without financial skills may find themselves bankrupt, people who lack email and time-management skills will find themselves wanting to declare email bankruptcy. People are usually restricted from starting businesses immediately after a financial bankruptcy. In a similar manner, people who suffer from extreme email overload should ensure they get some training in how to handle their workload before they get back in the game.
It’s not just a skill these people are lacking, though. It’s a way of viewing their inboxes and the place the inbox occupies in their life. I’m always saying that email overload is a state-of-mind, and David Ferris puts this very nicely:
“A lot of people like the feeling that they have everything done at the end of the day. They can’t have it anymore.”
I speak from experience. I once declared “job bankruptcy” — my inability to cope with my workload, in which email played a major part, prompted me to tender my resignation. My boss did not want to accept it, but I was determined. During the time that I worked out my notice, I adopted the Getting Things Done method. All of a sudden, I had more than doubled my productivity and reduced my stress tremendously. GTD worked for me because it solved both the practical and psychological sides of the problem. I found that I could do the job well after all, and I continued working there for another 18 months!
Have you ever had to repeatedly nag someone to deliver on a commitment? What if it’s a commitment that is voluntary, i.e. you’re not the other person’s boss, and you cannot force them to do it? The classic case is trying to get your own boss to deliver on a commitment s/he made to you.
Imagine that you have asked David to review a report, and that he has responded by committing to a self-imposed deadline:
“I’m extremely busy right now, but I’ll have time to review your report on Monday.”
Where do you think your request will be at the beginning of next week? Like many managers, David suffers from chronic email overload, so by Monday it will probably be buried under a few hundred emails in his overflowing inbox. There’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that he’ll see it and be reminded that he committed to send his feedback.
You will therefore need to remind David of his commitment. But if you become too much of a nuisance, David might not deliver. So, how do you remind him in a nice way, without becoming too much of a nag?
All you need to do is say, “Thanks!”
However, it’s not what you say, it’s when you say it. Don’t reply to David’s message until the time arrives when he promised to work on it.
On Monday, your reply will arrive in David’s inbox, and will subtly remind him of his commitment at exactly the time that he planned to work on it:
“Thanks, David. today will be just in time to fix the document up before the final draft is due. I await your comments eagerly.”
I have used this tactic on many occasions, and have found it very successful. Sometimes you need to help those around you to be a little more productive!
I’ve just registered a “proper” domain name for this blog. It now resides at http://email-overloaded.com. The folks at WordPress.com have rigged things smoothly, so that if you use the old address, you’ll still end up here.
If you are subscribed to this blog’s RSS feed, it should continue working normally, but it would still be a good idea to update the URL to http://email-overloaded.com/feed/
I’ve been tracking my newsletter intake over the past week, and I must admit to being rather surprised at the results.
I received only 55 messages from 37 sources that can be described as newsletters, and it took a total of only 72 minutes to read them, including any associated links I was tempted to click on.
Six of these contained at least one piece of information that helps me do my job better, and thirteen messages (from nine sources) managed to pique my interest on subjects that have little bearing on my job.
According to this, approximately 34% of the messages contained something useful or interesting. Does that mean I’m wasting 66% of my time reading useless newsletters just on the off-chance that I’ll find something valuable? Apparently not: 62 out of the total 72 minutes (86%) were spent reading messages from sources that gave useful or interesting information. So I wasted only 10 minutes on useless newsletters.
This is rather surprising, as I had assumed that I would be able to save a significant amount of time by unsubscribing from the less valuable newsletters. I’m still going to unsubscribe from some of the newsletters, as it will considerably reduce unnecessary inbox clutter.
I’m going to continue measuring for another few weeks, as I need more data points from the newsletters that I receive only once a week. I’m hoping to develop some rules of thumb to help decide what to keep and what to cut.
Newsletters seem to take up an incredible amount of space in my inbox. There are some I just can’t bring myself to unsubscribe from, even though I can’t remember the last time I got anything useful out of them. The fear of missing something important is just too great.
In order to help me reduce the amount of rubbish in my inbox and to reduce the time I waste on reading messages “just in case”, I’ve decided to record various statistics about the newsletters I’m subscribed to. I’m then going to analyze the results and see if I can devise a more effective newsletter subscription policy.
I don’t quite know what to measure — this is what I’ll be tracking to start with:
- How long does each newsletter take to read? If I am tempted to click on any links, I’m going to include the time taken to read those web pages too.
- Does it help me get my work done or do it better? If not, does it at least provide information that will probably help in the near future?
- Is it interesting? Is there at least one tidbit of interesting information in it? If I click on a link — it’s a fair sign that it caught my interest.
I’m going to keep this up for a week, and report back here with my findings.
Cognitive psychologist Malia Mason, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, has published research that backs up my earlier post on how to solve problems using your subconscious mind. I know I’m right, but it’s comforting to know that the science backs it up. [Thank you Deus|Diabolus for bringing it to my attention.]
Using an MRI machine, Dr. Mason showed that when we engage in familiar activities that do not tax our minds, our minds go to work on problems we’ve accumulated but have not yet solved.
I’ve found that this type of subconscious “thinking,” which usually happens to me when I go for a run or a long drive, is far more creative than trying to force a solution using conscious thought.
SpeedFiler is a major factor in how I keep my inbox under control, and without it, my outgoing items would all be dumped in Sent Items, instead of in the folders they really belong in. Basically, it allows me to file messages in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take using only Outlook’s own features. For me, it’s the difference between letting my inbox keep piling up and getting more cluttered vs. keeping a tidy inbox containing just the stuff I haven’t yet processed — the difference between working inefficiently vs. operating at peak productivity. [Full disclosure: I am the author.]
SpeedFiler 1.1 was released this week. Apart from adding support for Outlook 2007’s new Ribbon toolbar, it is a maintenance release that fixes bugs and improves performance and stability.
SpeedFiler is free to download and use for 30 days, after which it costs $24.95 to license it. However, by entering coupon code BLD742, you’ll get a 20% discount on your copy. Offer ends January 19.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll be posting much more frequently — already working on a few posts…
Many of us find ourselves processing email while on the road. In fact, sitting on a plane, or while waiting for one, is probably the best time to catch up on a stuffed inbox.
However, when we’re away from the office, we’re at our most vulnerable point with respect to viruses and malware. While we’re away, we access the Internet via insecure public networks (hotel rooms, coffee shops etc.), which lay us wide open to infection from the Internet as well as others using the same network. We have to learn how to negotiate with our desktop firewalls and configure our VPN client software, and many of us get so frustrated that we have learned to bypass these obstacles, even if it means that we compromise on security.
This is not only a problem for individuals — it is a problem for companies, too. After you’ve taken your laptop on the road and possibly got it infected with malware or spyware, what do you think can happen when you return to the office and connect to the company network? I still have vivid memories of being hit by the Code Red virus in 2001 in a hotel room over a dial-up connection, despite my up-to-date anti-virus program. Had I not realized immediately that my machine was infected, it would have attacked my company’s network from the inside when I got back to the office. I also know first-hand of at least one incident at a major US corporation where an employee returned from a business trip and started a virus outbreak the minute he connected his laptop to the network.
Conventional thinking has it that productivity and security are like a see-saw; if productivity goes up, security goes down, and vice-versa. Microsoft could not have been as successful with their operating systems and Office products had they been overly concerned about security from the outset, instead of focusing on usability.
This poses a rather challenging paradox:
- Laptop security needs to be considerably beefed up, to a level that is on a par with the security policy enforced by the corporate network gateway appliances.
- At the same time, this security needs to be so easy to use, that it becomes the path of least resistance — it must be totally transparent to the end user, just like the appliances that filter traffic at the corporate gateway.
I’m currently beta testing Yoggie Gatekeeper, a pocket-sized appliance that solves this exact conundrum. It connects to your laptop’s network port or USB interface and scans all incoming and outgoing network traffic. It is one of the simplest appliances I’ve ever used — literally plug and play. It is packed full of enterprise grade security scanners: firewall, intrusion detection/prevention system (IDS/IPS), anti-virus, anti-spam, anti-phishing, web filtering. I’m not going to get into the technical stuff — that’s available at www.yoggie.com.
For companies, it allows central management of the security policy, allowing the administrator to guarantee a high level of security, and do this completely transparently as far as the end user is concerned. It also contains a VPN client, so the user won’t ever have to fiddle with the network settings, and shouldn’t have any problem accessing corporate resources over the Internet. It can even provide a very convenient way to deploy a VPN, for those companies that have not yet done so.
By offloading much of the security processing to the Yoggie Gatekeeper, which includes a powerful processor and 128MB of RAM, there are significant benefits to be had:
- Performance: your laptop does waste resources on performing VPN encryption and decryption — this is done by the Yoggie Gatekeeper. Your desktop anti-virus and other security systems can remain tuned for the same level of security they provide when you’re inside the relative safety of the corporate network, i.e. not too aggressive, but powerful enough to provide an extra layer of insulation, just in case. This leaves maximum resources available to get your job done.
- Security: a layer of hardware between your laptop and the network can go a long way to insulate your laptop from attack — the Yoggie Gatekeeper will take the knocks instead of the laptop.
Yoggie Gatekeeper is expected to be available by the beginning of 2007 and will cost around $200 per unit. The value to companies is clear, but on an individual level, just being able to sit in a coffee shop and surf the internet with a carefree smile is well worth it.
[Disclosure: On the strength of a long-standing relationship with the makers of the Yoggie Gatekeeper, and a common background in security appliances (I used to manage a security appliance product line), I received a free unit to test. My only obligation is a gentleman's agreement to supply the people at Yoggie with regular and detailed feedback, which I'm very happy to do. I am under no obligation to write about it, and if I choose to write about it, I'm not subject to any restrictions.]
Is your preview area squashed so narrow that you can’t comfortably read messages in Outlook’s main window? I’ll show you how you can use a single keystroke to expand it to read your messages, and then contract it again. This is an incredibly simple tip, but I’m amazed at how much it has changed my email experience.
By default, Outlook divides its main window into three sections: navigation pane, message list and the preview area. If you don’t have a wide screen, the preview area is squashed up against the right hand side, and is not really comfortable to use for reading messages — just for scanning them to see if they need to be opened in a separate window for more attention.
This frustrates me, as I like to use the main window for actually reading my messages. I’ve tried widening the preview area at the expense of narrowing the message list, but if the message list is too narrow, it will take up 2 lines for each message, i.e. show only half the number of messages as before — not good, since I also like to see as much of my inbox as possible in a single glance.
There’s another obvious solution that’s been staring me in the face, and it took one of my SpeedFiler customers to point it out to me — just get rid of the navigation pane! All it takes is an Alt-F1 to make it disappear and another Alt-F1 to bring it back when you need it. When the navigation pane disappears, it donates its space to the preview area, which suddenly becomes wide enough to display the messages in a readable manner.
In fact a lot of the time I manage quite well without a navigation pane at all. Whenever I need to go to another folder, I hit Ctrl+Y to bring up SpeedFiler’s streamlined navigation window and choose my destination. If you don’t have SpeedFiler, Ctrl+Y will bring up Outlook’s own Go to Folder window, which shows exactly the same folders that appear in the navigation area that we just hid.
In addition, if you want to get quickly back to the Inbox from another folder, all it takes is a quick Ctrl+Shift+I.
A recent white paper commissioned by Cisco about effective communication within virtual teams concludes:
‘Silence’ – or non-response to communication (email, voice mail, etc.) can be very damaging to virtual team effectiveness as it leads individuals to misattribute explanations for this silence.
Unfortunately, in many organizations the correct interpretation of silence is almost always along these lines:
“I’m too overloaded and haven’t even read your message.”
“I read your message, and intended to reply, but I did not get to it, and I don’t know if I ever will.”
“I’m not going to read your message — it does not look important enough. If it were really important, you would have phoned me.”
The major cause of silence is email overload — people just don’t get to all the messages that require their attention, or don’t manage to follow through with a timely response. So if you’re managing a virtual team, don’t rely on email as the main method of communication.
One of the best technical writers I’ve worked with took a rather cynical approach to non-responsiveness, under the guise of interpreting the silence optimistically. When sending a document draft out for review, she would write the following:
Please respond with corrections by (date). If I don’t receive any corrections from you, I’m going to assume that the attached draft meets your approval.
Obviously, this “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach can backfire, but if used judiciously, it can produce very good results. I know, because it worked wonders on me!
Apart from this “speak now or forever hold your peace” approach, what else can we do to improve our chances of getting a reply?
- Craft your subject line well. It should summarize the message, not describe it. For example instead of “Annual Report, Draft 3″, write: “Need your comments on Annual Report by Wednesday.”
- Use a rifle, not a shotgun: address a specific individual and not a group. The fewer people you address, the higher your chances of receiving a reply. (Here’s why.)
- Include a clear call to action — tell the recipient exactly what you want or expect them to do, and make sure you do this near the top of the message, if not in the subject line itself.
- If you’re writing to someone you don’t know, here’s a recent example of how to ensure they will not respond.
Email silences will still be inevitable. How can we minimize the resulting misunderstandings? How can we reduce the silences to a minimum?
- Give our colleagues realistic expectations of how long it will take to receive a reply. One way to do this, is to describe your email habits in your signature.
- Learn to be responsive, and consistently reply to all messages within 24 hours.
And lastly, keep track of messages for which the replies you expect are overdue, and send out reminders if necessary.
Robert Scoble says he is close to declaring “email bankruptcy.”
I don’t believe he’ll take the drastic step of deleting all his mail and notifying all of his contacts that he’s starting again, because in some ways, email bankruptcy is similar to financial bankruptcy:
- it can have a catastrophic effect on your reputation;
- you need a recovery plan, otherwise you’ll be in trouble again soon.
However, if email bankruptcy would really be like financial bankruptcy, people would stop sending you emails (extending credit), because they would not not trust you to answer them (repay debt). Is that good or bad?
Actually, a closer look at Scoble’s post shows that his problem is not the large volume of email he gets. His inbox is clean, and his messages are all triaged into various folders. His problem seems to be in finding the time to perform all the actions related to the 1537 triaged emails. I would hazard a guess that the root of the problem is that he’s over-committing. Each time we read a message and file it away in an “Action” folder, we are making a commitment to ourselves to handle it at a later date. It’s all too easy to make too many such commitments. It’s nothing to do with email itself — that’s just a communications medium which triggers most of our commitments, and email programs make it too easy for us to pile up these commitments without realizing how overcommitted we are.
My advice to Robert, if indeed this is his problem, is to take his own advice and get back on the GTD wagon. GTD makes us keep a list of projects and a list of next actions. If an incoming email triggers a new project, it is instantly clear to us whether we have room for it now, whether we’ll have to defer it to a later date, or even decline it altogether. Since I adopted GTD, it’s become much easier for me to say “no” when that’s the honest answer, and also much easier to say “yes,” knowing I’ll be able to honor the commitment.
You want to meet. The other party wants to meet. You have a common interest in meeting. You’ve agreed to meet, but now you have to work out the logistics. How many emails and/or phone calls will it take to set it up?
A recent 90-minute meeting with someone from another company took a total of fifteen (15) emails back-and-forth and two phone calls to set up, over the space of a few days.
I won’t bore you with details, which included working with both of my counterpart’s personal assistants, each based in a different country, and reacting to changing travel plans. This was an extreme case, but not by much.
The negotiations in this case were so mechanical, that they could almost have been conducted automatically by computer. It was therefore a relative waste of my time to have to deal with the numerous volleys of messages. My counterpart was insulated from this time- and attention-consuming process by his assistants, who conducted the logistical negotiations on his behalf. However, it’s a great pity if this is what PA’s are really for, especially because having a go-between also adds its own overhead to the process. Now imagine how many more messages would have been required if I had a PA too! It almost defeats the whole purpose.
Microsoft Exchange and similar systems provide a rather rudimentary method of time-slot negotiation; one side may see when the other party is free, and then send them an invitation, which is then accepted, rejected or returned with a suggested alternative time. Even these systems don’t work unless all parties are from the same company.
At first glance, it shouldn’t be too difficult to rig together a system that would allow our computers to negotiate this sort of meeting. An idealized meeting negotiation agent would have to know, or be able to ask you if necessary:
- when you prefer to have your meetings
- where you plan to be on each day (time-zone / country / city)
- where you prefer to have your meetings on each day — are you tied to your office? Can you get away for lunch? Are you able to travel to the other party’s office?
Unfortunately, the above information is rather hard to pin down accurately, and it’s quite volatile. The problem here is not so much a software problem, rather it is how to get software to learn what our preferences are and to use this knowledge to arrive at the same decisions as we humans would make.
I suspect that it will be quite some time before computers can save us time in this way, although this negotiation process can definitely be streamlined significantly with a few rather simple improvements, which would hopefully eliminate a whole class of messages from our inboxes.
There’s one group of people who won’t be suffering from email overload for a while — the 400 Radio Shack employees that were fired via email last week. Now that’s an example of a loaded email! Obviously the folks at Radio Shack have forgotten that some things are communicated much better in a face-to-face meeting, or at least over the phone.
What effect will this have on the remaining employees at Radio Shack? Will they develop a sudden aversion to checking email, for fear of what it may contain, or will they pay extra attention to it, for the same reason? Or will they look for positions with employers who treat people with a little more respect?
Golden rule: if your news is likely to shock someone or generate a negative emotional response, don’t use email.
Email is critical part of company infrastructure and business processes, yet it is so structureless. This lack of structure is what makes it so ubiquitous — it’s easy to use it for everything. However, it can be extremely unreliable where strict business workflows must be followed.
If your life depended on it, would you choose email as your preferred method of communications? Too many things can go wrong, at both the sending and receiving ends, and I’m not talking about purely technical glitches.
How easy is it to accidentally delete someone from the list of recipients, or mistype someone’s name or address so that it goes to John Doe instead of John Smith?
Now compare this relative fragility with the potential damage it can cause. It boggles the mind. Here’s an example from earlier this year:
New employee made a routing error
The U.S. Air Force said a new employee’s e-mail routing error kept the Pentagon and the public in the dark about nearly $4 billion of its contracts in December.
Lost in space had been more than $1.57 billion awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp., $1.22 billion for The Boeing Co., and almost $509 million for Lockheed Martin Corp., among others.
“It’s awfully embarrassing,” said Air Force spokeswoman Jean Schaefer. The contracts at issue totaled $3.98 billion and covered projects ranging from remotely piloted Global Hawk aircraft to F-22A fighter jets, she said.
The Air Force employee inadvertently dropped the Defense Department from the e-mail distribution list for the contracts after moving into the new job on Dec. 1, Schaefer said.
[Computerworld, February 14, 2006]
So how can we mitigate the risks?
If you have an important procedure that must be executed to perfection whenever it is triggered, don’t rely on bare-bones free-form email. If your organization does not already have a system for managing such workflows, you can use a simple document template to prevent trivial errors from causing extensive damage. Create a document to be used as a checklist whenever the procedure needs to be executed.
At execution time, the document will be shuttled between the players, each one performing a pre-defined task towards completing the process.
I’ve found that the most efficient format is to divide the document into sections. Each section contains instructions to a specific person (either explicitly identified by name, or unambiguously referred to by their job title), as well as fields for them to insert any information that is needed for later steps.
Keeping the instructions inside the workflow has the following advantages:
It refreshes people’s minds about what they need to do, without them having to refer to an external source.
It provides just-in-time training for new hires about the procedure, i.e. learn by doing.
It documents execution of the workflow for record-keeping (or CYA) purposes.
The instructions to each participant must state clearly:
what the participant is expected to do,
how they “pass the buck,”
to whom they should pass said buck.
When people are presented with clear instructions to play their part in a self-evidently organized process, it is much easier to get them to cooperate, especially if they can see exactly how the process depends on them. This is true, even if the trigger suddenly lands in their inbox with no prior warning.
Bob Walsh includes the following line at the bottom of his email signature:
(I usually check email every few hours during the day.)
What a great idea! People who correspond with Bob now know that:
- he does not allow incoming email to disturb what he’s doing (he practices GTD), but
- he’ll definitely read your message within a few hours.
I’m going to adopt this idea with a slight tweak, and add the following to my email signature:
I usually check email every couple of hours during the day, and I reply to most messages within 24 hours.
This won’t stop the odd idiot from calling up to ask if I’ve seen the email he just sent me, but I am confident that it will help to train the rest of my environment to interact with me more efficiently.
I recently bought a new wireless keyboard and mouse combination. As I surveyed the available models, I realized that the main differentiator for me was size — I wanted the footprint to be as small as possible. The ideal size would be the same as the old-fashioned, wired keyboard it would replace. Easier said than done, as today’s wireless keyboards come with all manner of programmable buttons, dials and other ergonomic features that bloat their size to dominate any desktop. I finally settled on a Logitech model that comes with the barest minimum of extra keys.
During the first minute of use I was surprised to discover that natural selection has given my new keyboard a significant advantage. My new keyboard might be small, but it boasts a Delete key that is double the size of the old one, and is now almost as large as the Enter key. I suppose I should not be so surprised — in this age of SPAM and CYA-Mail, the Delete key is probably one of the most heavily used keys.
(CYA-Mail: Cover Your Ass Mail — messages unnecessarily CC’ed to people who will never read them, by senders who think it will help to deflect blame when the sh*t hits the fan. If you have a better definition — you’re welcome to post it as a comment below.)
Tomorrow (Thursday) at 10:00-11:30 AM Pacific / 1:00-2:30 PM Eastern the American Bar Association Center for Continuing Legal Education (ABA-CLE) is holding a teleconference and live webcast about Overcoming Email Overload.
Adriana Linares, one of the experts on the panel, tells me that this blog and SpeedFiler are listed as resources in the session materials. Thanks Adriana, and I hope you lawyers have an informative and useful session tomorrow.