Category Archives: Email Overload

Email Bankruptcy Continues to Spread

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!

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Nagless Reminders — Get the Recipient to Respond On Time and Cut Through their Email Overload

ReminderHave 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!

Email Newsletter Study: Surprising Initial Results

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.

Email Newsletters: Time Wasters or Valuable Information Sources?

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.

The Speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace Approach

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?

And lastly, keep track of messages for which the replies you expect are overdue, and send out reminders if necessary.

Recovering from Email Bankruptcy

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:

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.

How many emails to set up a meeting?

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. Continue reading