Another hapless victim of e-mail overload
Fred at Flatiron Partners has a post on his VC blog
about the perils of allowing your Inbox to get too full and the misplaced sense of responsibility he (and a number of other popular people) seem to have about replying to everything they receive with a personal response (Scoble, are you listening?). Regular readers know this is a subject near and dear that I have talked about a lot (some would say incessantly) in the past.
I had a number of conversation with members of the MSN Search team while at the Search Champs v2 event this week about the email culture at Microsoft and the problems they’re facing. If Fred think he has a problem with 526 unanswered emails in his Inbox (well, actually he does), he should talk to some of the folks at Microsoft because he’ll at least know there are folks in far worse shape. I actually spoke to one person who gleefully admitted to having 5,000 emails in his Inbox! Scoble and I have discussed his email paradox - they arrive faster than he can respond.
The best thing about well-read bloggers like Fred (and Robert) talking publicly about their “email problem” is that these posts generate a lot of comments from folks offering good, if sometimes conflicting advice. As of the time I’m writing this, Fred’s post has generated 24 comments and most them offer some spot on suggestions for dealing with his issues. Some offer advice on processing techniques. Others suggest a software solution. Still others suggest an attitude adjustment about the sense of obligation to reply.
They’re all partially right but the truth of the matter is you need to do all three. None of these suggestions, in and of themselves, will get your Inbox to empty on a consistent basis.
Let’s examine each of these three facets of the email puzzle.
- Processing techniques: There are a growing number of texts and seminars that will teach you techniques for efficiently processing what comes into your Inbox. I’m a big fan of David Allen and Sally McGhee in this regard (they were early collaborators on what ultimately became Getting Things Done and Take Back Your Life). The key element in their approaches, relative to this discussion, is the idea that you separate the time you spend processing email from the time you spend acting on what’s actionable in the messages. I’d suggest that Fred look into the workflow ideas they offer and use the ones that work best. But processing technique alone will not solve the inundation issue by itself.
- Software: Throwing software at the Inbox problem can also help. I’ve written about dozens of tools that can help by automating aspects of the processing, filing, and retrieval pieces of the puzzle. Scoble is having some success with ClearContext. Other email victims I know swear by NEO Pro. Getting Things Done fans get good results using the NetCentrics GTD add-in. ActiveWords can assist with creating auto-response text that can generate a stock reply with a single keystroke, as can Bells & Whistles and You Perform. Anagram can intelligently extract critical information from incoming email with a keystroke. Desktop search tools can assist with retrieval. One or more of these tools can make a big difference but, just like processing technique, software tools usually will not solve the problem by themselves.
- Attitude Adjustment: This is the hardest of the three to tackle because you’re not in complete control over your own destiny here and it’s hard to deal with feelings of obligation and guilt. People like Fred and Robert feel obliged to reply to everyone who writes to them. It’s a commendable personality trait but, in Scoble’s vernacular, it doesn’t scale. When you’re corresponding with a handful of people, you can be a faithful and responsive part of each conversation. Scale up to dozens of people (typical of most knowledge workers today) and you can still be very effective. Ratchet the bar up to hundreds of people (typical of many people I know including some popular bloggers) and things start to break down. When you get to more than a few hundred, you have to change the rules of engagement. There simply isn’t enough time in the day to reply in real-time and personally to that many people. So make it clear that you appreciate hearing from everyone but that the volume of mail you receive simply does not provide time for a hand-crafted and immediate response. Use processing techniques and software tools to assist with separating the most important messages from everything else and getting what’s actionable out of these critical messages.
Jeremy Wright and I are developing a course on Time and Task Management using Outlook for Microsoft Learning that spends a significant amount addressing this issue. I discuss it at length here on a regular basis and it’s one of the things I point to as being broken at work in my forthcoming essay for the More Space project (want an early peek? E-mail me at mochant [at] Gmail [dot] com and I’ll send you a close-to-final draft). It’s a complex problem and that complexity is created in large part because of the many ways people use e-mail and the cultures in which they use it.
Microsoft has an intterupt-driven e-mail culture (as do many organizations). Changing culture is really hard, especially when you’re talking about companies with thousands of employees scattered across the globe who all have been conditioned to use and react e-mail in a certain way. Hey… if it was easy, it would already have been fixed, right? You can make significant and lasting changes in how you you control or allow yourself to be controlled by e-mail though. It isn’t easy and it requires practice and discipline to make the changes but the payoff is big… really big.