I thought I’d forward the discussion of email charters and intelligent agents a bit, I wanted to point to a couple of interesting follow-up pieces: Michael McCracken posted Email Charters and Lists as Parties, and calls out Luis Villa’s blog on Mailing Lists are Parties. Or they Should be. Both are well worth a read. He actually makes some very good points, and I’ve touched on some of them a bit in the past (see The Lifecycle of Mailings lists , An Audience of One , etiquette, “standards” and online social environments…  and just for giggles, How Many Mailing List Subscribers does it take to screw in a lightbulb ).
Yes, I’ve built email systems and run mailing lists since the dark ages, so I have a few opinions on them. I think Luis has some neat ideas, best summed up here:
Bottom line: Software can’t save a mailing list full of people who actively dislike each other. Maybe I’m crazy, though, but it seems like software that helped mailing lists function more like parties could really help mailing lists cope better with anti-social people.
In which he’s effectively calling for (whether he realizes it or not) the USENET “kill file“, although the modern flavor of that are the various reputation systems that are being invented (and the one I really like and which seems to be the one people are borrowing heavily from these days are the Stack Exchange systems).
But enough linking around for now.
The ultimate failure of mailing lists — and one we never solved over 20+ years of using and innovating them — is that they don’t scale. They seriously suck at scaling. They are a push-oriented, interruptive system that ultimately controls you, and you have to fight to keep some control on it. The easiest way to make a mailing list fail is to make it popular. They don’t scale to size, and they don’t scale to volume. I can’t tell you how many times a mailing list I ran got into a really interesting discussion and a bunch of users got going and started talking about it, only to have others on the list walk in and start yelling at everyone to shut up and quit dumping crap into their inboxes.
Imagine that, a communication service that works best when people don’t really use it. But when it gets used and gets popular, it causes problems.
So from the very beginning, understand that email bankruptcy is not you, it’s the technology.
And the key to avoiding email bankruptcy is understanding that — and that gives you hints on solutions to preventing it, or getting your inbox back under control.
I’ve been doing email for 25+ years now. Most of my email environments tended to be high volume; people suffering from email bankruptcy. Currently, email is a huge part of my job — right now, I’m sending (sending, not receiving) ~225-240 emails a day on average. My inboxes see about 400 on a typical day. My record for sending email in one work day is around 550.
So if your inbox makes you wince or cry, I feel your pain. Been there more than once. I’ve reworked my email workflow many times looking for the magic solutions. And here are some of my thoughts on how to get out of it if you’re there, and how to avoid it if you’re not.
There are two primary causes of email bankruptcy:
- Arriving email interrupting you: when you start getting too many emails, it prevents you from actually focusing on things are spending any significant time working on anything.
- There are so many emails in your inbox you never get to the bottom of it (the legendary “inbox zero” syndrome).
How do you get there? Here are a few rules and thoughts:
Inbox Zero is not the goal. Inbox Management is. So don’t stress yourself trying to get to Inbox Zero. What you want is an inbox that you can look at and know at a glance what’s going on and what needs your attention.
Complex filtering systems are not the solution — unless they are self-teaching and self-learning. Frankly, most filtering systems in most email clients just plain old suck, and they are more trouble than they are worth, except for very simple, “let’s take a broadsword to this problem” solutions.
Keep it simple: you don’t fix the problem by shifting the problem from dealing with the email to trying to maintain the workflow.
If you take nothing else from this article, take this item: in talking to people over time over getting their email under control, the single most common cause of email bankruptcy is that they are doing significant amounts of communication via email, and they have somehow convinced themselves they can do it around the edges of their real work. Email is a task, and you need to commit time to it, the way you do meetings and your other tasks.
This is an amazingly common situation; you get up, you get to work. you try to check emails on the bus or at stoplights; you run to your first meeting, in the five minutes before everyone gets there, you’re madly scanning your inbox. While in the meeting, more emails come in. You have three meetings in a row, and suddenly people are sending emails asking why you aren’t answering emails. So in your next meeting, you try to multitask and do both the meeting and email. And suddenly, you’re doing nothing well.
Sound familiar? Yeah. I do it to at times. We all do.
So the first rule of avoiding email bankruptcy is admitting that email is a task and allocating time to it. Block time in your calendar for it. It is really a virtual meeting (albeit not real time, not face to face). It’s part of your work or personal tasks, and you will fail if you treat it as a hit and run situation. How much time depends on your life, your inbox and how your inbox relates to your work or personal situation — but stop pretending you can just handle it ad hoc, and schedule it into your life.
If you do not do this, your relationship with your inbox will never stop being a guerilla warfare situation, and it will win.
So find time to sit down every day and deal with your inbox. Maybe an hour, maybe 30 minutes twice a day (morning and afternoon, whatever you find works.
A side effect of allocating a regular timeslot to your inbox is this: it gives you permission to shut email out of your life at other times. If one of your problems is you’re constantly having email interrupt your other tasks and breaking your focus, learn to turn your email off! But psychologically, people find that hard if they know at some level they’re behind and have emails that need your attention. Your guilt at not having gotten to you inbox tends to make you bounce in and out and check every incoming email for an emergency, whnich breaks your focus, which ruins your productivity and train of thought, which means other tasks take longer, which means you have less time to do email, which….
So set up your schedule so you spend time focusing on email and handling it, so you can give yourself permission to ignore it (because its not out of control any more!) and all of your work will happen better. And when you do have that five minutes before a meeting, you can use it dealing with an email or three, and not feel pressure to “catch up”, because its’ all handled. So even that mini multitasking will be more effective and less stressful. And you’ll be a lot less tempted to multitask a meeting (unless its really boring).
Okay, you’ve blocked out time to handle email. Now what?
We will cover that in the next piece. Stay tuned….
(edited to add: hmm. Looks like Matt Cutts might be interested in these articles…)