Saturday, June 14, 2008

Beating email - it's doable. Here's how.

[I'm doing a talk on a related topic, so I'm incrementally updating this post. Most recent update: 7/14/08]

Feeble NYT article: Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast. Thousands of emails, can't manage, etc.

At home I am not so reliable a correspondent, but not terrible. At work though, email is a part of my job. These are the lessons learned over decades of business email use.

First, start with the goals:
  1. Solve business problems efficiently.
  2. Build respectful relationships
  3. Eliminate replies. Inferior email multiplies. Superior email terminates. Get the job done with a single message.
  4. Turn your work email into a searchable knowledge repository that will add value over years and decades.
Here's what works:
  1. Email is an essential part of my job, but there's no credit for email work. It's a means to an end. I schedule 1 protected hour in the am, 1 hour in the pm, and deal with it opportunistically in between. I switch Outlook into offline mode so I don't get distracted by notices between scheduled times.
  2. When sharing knowledge, make your email a link to a blog post or a wiki. Instead of sending updated emails, update the blog post or add to the wiki. Interested persons can subscribe to the post/wiki feed. This helps eliminate
  3. Manage email using some variant of the GTD two minute rule.
  4. No email lists. Lists should have been buried long ago. If there's no feed, the owners are clueless. In theory I could auto-route into a folder and make them fodder for full text search, but in practice I don't do email lists.
  5. Use a feed reader for event subscription/notification. No Sharepoint 2007 email alerts, just feeds.
  6. Don't file email. The single killer feature of Outlook is the ability to edit the subject line. If email is worth keeping, then revise the subject line as needed and dump into the Save folder. Full text search, like Windows Search or Spotlight was invented to save you filing time. I do have 4-5 active project folders I throw things in, but this takes me no time and I don't worry if I get it wrong.
  7. Learn your full test search engine very well. You will use it all the time.
  8. Keep only the last email in a discussion thread. When I Search and find a long thread I delete the redundant emails as a part of my search work (quite fast, makes future search more effective).
  9. Spend time on emails. Bad emails create more bad emails. Craft the subject line carefully. Say what you need/want done/want help with. If the email is informational only say no action required. Clean up the copied email thread in the email so only the core information is there. Eliminate the thread.
  10. Email breeds email. Send as few as possible. Learn to reply to complex emails by creating an appointment.
  11. Don't do anything complex by email. Email is for simple things. Email should fit in a small window.
  12. Never bcc except to yourself. Use CC very carefully. Resist people who extend CC chains. The To line is strictly for people who have to do things.
  13. Don't send thank you emails to people who know you. They are a necessary email for many coworkers however.
  14. Don't use email to manage tasks. Drag and drop an email to a task icon
  15. Reserve 1-2 hours twice a day for email.
  16. If you find you're doing frequent important emails with one correspondent, schedule a weekly 30-45 minute meeting. Put all the topics into tasks or an appointment agenda. Discuss and send a summary email if needed.
  17. Triage your incoming email by rules that operate on sender and to line. If I'm not on the to line I rarely respond to an email.
I've got another ten or so, but I'll add them later. Out of time for now ...

The point is, it can be done. A key is to improve email quality to reduce volume.

This is largely cultural, the only technology component is the ability to edit subject lines (Are you listening Gmail?) and full text search. Culture takes a while to develop, but we're getting there.


Adrien Van der Donck said...

I disagree with about several of your recommendations. I work in the real estate industry, which is notorious for spam, egregious CC lists, and dumb 'reply to alls.' I cut through it all quickly, and do so in an environment that for legal reasons requires me to save and be able to retrieve any of my emails that are deal related even 6 years hence.
1. Most emails do not require reading, they can be avoided simply because the source is not part of current business and is a competitor not a current project; 2. of the smaller group that remains most can be deleted once past at least past the subject line and the first two sentences. 3. If not save and don't read unless current deal relevant. 4. Don't waste your time being pissed of by thank yous and unnecessary responses. Just skip em. Too much is made of that stuff and usually from the jerks who spam me the most. 5. Totally disagree with not using email for complex, pithy issues. Content is what drives good business. Most of the piffle, and 'lets' meet at such and such' and 'I'm on the corner with my Blackberry.' ZZZttts SPAM/d/ 6. email and the web started as an information network, it devolved along the way into a communication network that deteriorated into a social network. The so called 'etiquette' and other piffle that tightly wound control freaks tried to impose on its users alienated may from a medium that at its best can be as informative as any communication system that ever preceded it. 8. SUBJECT LINE :-0 UPDATE THEM. Threads drift out in the corporate miasma that have drifted and devolved way off subject line and bog everyone down with the non-edited subject line. Don't blame Gmail. It's not the end of the world to command/control A>C>V your way to a new thread with a new subject line. 9. Don't discount CC's. If a party is named in an email or a statement is attributed to a party off thread it is often prudent to copy them lest the thread come back around to them and they dispute or question the attribution. At least if you've given them the courtesy of checking directly they can correct you. And if a third party has misrepresented their opinion or a fact it is a positive outcome to short circuit this. 10. Take advantage of BCC - it is frequently the cleanest way to keep a client informed without exposing them to the froth of all the back and forth.

JGF said...

Interesting -- such different worlds!

I get a small amount of email that's not worth reading, but it's less than 5% of my inflow. I do have to process everything I get. I have filters to delete corporate spam.

I don't use BCC because in my experience it confuses recipients. If I want to inform someone of a message without adding them to the email trail I forward the message with a comment.

My desire to rename subject lines is driven by my heavy use of full text search, if you don't use full text search that's not an issue.

Simple and complex are relative terms of course. Simple for me is something that can be answered in 2-3 emails, complex is something where the threads extend over more than 3-4 days, and the noise level rises proportionately.

Unknown said...

Stumbled upon your blog, first read your elegant email-overload solutions (loved them--forwarded to my SO). Want to read your blog for days, but I need some immediate advice. You seem like a truly impartial writer, etc. etc. (lots more sucking-up.....) IF you have time, and IF you feel inclined, I would appreciate a *brief* dialog on my immediate online grad school need for a new computer. The one I am using right now totally crashed last monday, I had to resort to a System Recovery, which took it back to the stone ages (2003). I lost everything, I think. I won a scholarship out of the blue (age 54!! for patients with rheumatoid arthritis) but my inbox was so clogged up I almost missed it the app together by the skin of my teeth. Now, still running late, (I never expected in any lifetime to be able to return to school) the scholarship check gets cut next week, I am applying online, but my ''puter won't do any of the things I need it to do (like talk to my printer-scanner-copier; yes, I reloaded the software, have done all the troubleshooting, etc).
SO, I need a new one. My degree will be MS in Psych, I already have one in Lib Sci, am unable to work, so these classes are just because my brain is screaming for intellectual stimulation, which my body won't permit me to acquire physically..........
Don't need programming or gaming or web design. Mostly email, web surfing, writing.......... I am leaning toward a laptop that I could take to bed with me.........

If you have gotten this far.....bless you! If you care to offer advice, I would be grateful....... (BTW, unlike you, with a pseudonym and all, my real name is Nina Wikstrom Aguilar; you can google me and read old MLS papers I wrote, read about my son's death at age 8, Roque Wikstrom Aguilar........basically, I am an open book. But you''re from Minnesota, so you're nice folks.)

JGF said...

I'll try to reply to the last comment by email.

In the meantime, it's funny to come back to this topic.

I was on top of email -- for a while. Then it rose up and overwhelmed me.

So I need to think of yet more techniques. I think it may involve redirecting email to other persons whenever possible.

John F said...

Years late I stay inbox zero most of the time. So it can be done.