Hi! I finally got around to starting a blog, which is quite surprising because I’m opinionated and generally have lots to say. Which does not, however, mean that anyone wants to listen.
One topic that is close to my heart and about which I have hard evidence that a few people are willing to listen, is how to cope with email overload.
Until recently, as a rather busy vice president in a security appliance company, I would receive 100 to 150 emails a day that somehow slipped through our spam filter, probably because they were related to my work in some remote way. The company culture was extremely collaborative, meaning that if you did something you were proud of, or had a marvellous idea (in your very subjective opinion), you rushed off an email to anyone in the company who in your opinion might marvel at your brilliance, or who ought to act on your wonderful idea.
A few people were aware of the atrocious signal-to-noise ratio in email traffic. In general, these responsible individuals were quite economical with the number of recipients of their messages, and generally addressed only the people who needed to know. However, this did not guarantee that their messages were clear. Often, the actionable issue, if there was one, was buried in a far flung corner of a long and rambling message, and even then you needed to be a clairvoyant in order to understand what they wanted you to do.
In short, four major problems were making email useless to me as an efficient medium of communication.
- The sheer volume of potentially important email I was receiving.
- Ineffective targeting: I was a direct recipient (TO:) or carbon copy recipient (CC:) on too many messages that were of no importance to me. These cluttered up my inbox, and I still had to waste time reading them in order to determine that they were ignorable.
- Lack of clarity: facts presented haphazardly, long-winded explanations, and worst of all, no call to action.
- I could not get what I needed from my colleagues, because they were suffering from the same problems.
In fact, it was well known that if you wanted to reach the CEO, you had to use the phone, because his email inbox was overflowing and was not being handled in a predictable manner. I’ve heard the same about other CEO’s too.
To compound these problems, the company ran on “internet time”. If you blinked, you risked missing something important. This meant that when the “incoming email” whistle sounded, you switched contexts from whatever important task you were doing to check the incoming message. Because the company has offices across the world, it also meant you checked email at home before going to sleep and again before getting into the car in the morning.
I’ve compared notes with a few colleagues, and reached the conclusion that this is pretty representative of many companies today. Snowballing email use, and the ability to interact and collaborate in real time with people across the world are taking a serious toll on our concentration, stress levels and general well-being. None of us were trained to work in this seemingly crazy environment, and most of us are underperforming.
Needless to say, I reached a crisis that demanded drastic action before I self-destructed. A number of things resulted from this crisis. I became acutely aware of my productivity level and the factors that affected it. I drastically modified my work habits, and also developed software to help me. Using David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, I managed to more than double my productivity within a few short weeks. I stopped needing to work at home in the evenings and I suddenly had time for my family. I was a human being again, and I felt good.
In this blog I’ll discuss many of the problems and solutions I’ve come across on my journey. Oh, and I’ll be shamelessly plugging my software, where it is relevant.