Category Archives: Email Triage

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.

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 quickly would you be fired for being stoned on pot at work?

Or to rephrase this, how quickly would you be fired for multi-tasking at work?

A 2005 study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London shows that people who allow themselves to be constantly interrupted by email and instant messaging perform slightly worse than those who are stoned on pot. Continue reading

How to reply to all email messages within 24 hours, consistently

Do you ever get frustrated when someone does not reply to your messages within 24 hours? Isn’t it fun to work with people who reply only after you’ve politely (but persistently) badgered them a few times?

As I used to be one of these overloaded individuals, I can tell you that they only reply to two types of people: those whose cooperation they need in order to get their own job done, and those who badger them persistently enough to make them feel uncomfortable or embarrassingly inefficient.

As I said, I used to be one of these people. I now consistently reply to almost all of my email within 24 hours. So how do I maintain my responsiveness?

Continue reading

How Many Inboxes Do You Have?

This is NOT my inbox!The feeling of information overload is proportional to the amount of unprocessed information we have. I have a name for places where this unprocessed stuff piles up: “inboxes”. The email inbox is the obvious one, but there are others too.

Here are my inboxes:

  • Email inbox
  • Voicemail
  • Freehand notes taken via my Palm
  • In-tray on desk
  • Notebook (old fashioned pen and paper)
  • RSS and newsgroup reader

All of these have a plentiful supply of information to assimilate and decide how to handle. I resist anything that threatens to increase the number of inboxes I have. For example, I tried out OneNote and EverNote. These are cool products, but not having a tablet computer, the most useful feature to me was the ability to capture snippets from web pages for later reference. After using these tools for a while, and accumulating loads of snippets, I realized that I had unconsciously added yet another inbox. This was one too many, as I had to make a conscious effort to remember it when cranking through my other more visible inboxes. So how did I replace it? Continue reading

Small Change Makes Big Difference to Email Prioritization: How to Color-code Your Messages

Color-coding your messages can help you significantly with triage, the process of prioritizing your messages.

The most significant improvement for me is the rule that colors messages blue, if I am the only recipient on the TO: line. Such messages are most likely to be more important that the rest of the stuff that fills up my inbox, because:

  • They have not been sent to a bunch of people, but specifically to me.
  • They are therefore more likely to relate to my area of responsibility.
  • They are also more likely to require action.
  • If I don’t answer, nobody else will. (Read some interesting background information about this.)

In Microsoft Outlook, it’s very easy to define such a rule. On the menu in the main Outlook window, just click on Tools | Organize. This will display the following panel above the messages:

Color Messages Sent Only To Me

You can create additional rules using the Automatic Formatting… link at the top-right of the panel.