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.

Idle minds solve problems

Cognitive psychologist Malia Mason, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, has published research that backs up my earlier post on how to solve problems using your subconscious mind. I know I’m right, but it’s comforting to know that the science backs it up. [Thank you Deus|Diabolus for bringing it to my attention.]

Using an MRI machine, Dr. Mason showed that when we engage in familiar activities that do not tax our minds, our minds go to work on problems we’ve accumulated but have not yet solved.

I’ve found that this type of subconscious “thinking,” which usually happens to me when I go for a run or a long drive, is far more creative than trying to force a solution using conscious thought.

SpeedFiler 1.1 Released!

SpeedFiler is a major factor in how I keep my inbox under control, and without it, my outgoing items would all be dumped in Sent Items, instead of in the folders they really belong in. Basically, it allows me to file messages in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take using only Outlook’s own features. For me, it’s the difference between letting my inbox keep piling up and getting more cluttered vs. keeping a tidy inbox containing just the stuff I haven’t yet processed — the difference between working inefficiently vs. operating at peak productivity. [Full disclosure: I am the author.]

SpeedFiler 1.1 was released this week. Apart from adding support for Outlook 2007’s new Ribbon toolbar, it is a maintenance release that fixes bugs and improves performance and stability.

SpeedFiler is free to download and use for 30 days, after which it costs $24.95 to license it. However, by entering coupon code BLD742, you’ll get a 20% discount on your copy. Offer ends January 19.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll be posting much more frequently — already working on a few posts…

Solving the Productivity vs. Security Dilemma

Many of us find ourselves processing email while on the road. In fact, sitting on a plane, or while waiting for one, is probably the best time to catch up on a stuffed inbox.

However, when we’re away from the office, we’re at our most vulnerable point with respect to viruses and malware. While we’re away, we access the Internet via insecure public networks (hotel rooms, coffee shops etc.), which lay us wide open to infection from the Internet as well as others using the same network. We have to learn how to negotiate with our desktop firewalls and configure our VPN client software, and many of us get so frustrated that we have learned to bypass these obstacles, even if it means that we compromise on security.

This is not only a problem for individuals — it is a problem for companies, too. After you’ve taken your laptop on the road and possibly got it infected with malware or spyware, what do you think can happen when you return to the office and connect to the company network? I still have vivid memories of being hit by the Code Red virus in 2001 in a hotel room over a dial-up connection, despite my up-to-date anti-virus program. Had I not realized immediately that my machine was infected, it would have attacked my company’s network from the inside when I got back to the office. I also know first-hand of at least one incident at a major US corporation where an employee returned from a business trip and started a virus outbreak the minute he connected his laptop to the network.

Conventional thinking has it that productivity and security are like a see-saw; if productivity goes up, security goes down, and vice-versa. Microsoft could not have been as successful with their operating systems and Office products had they been overly concerned about security from the outset, instead of focusing on usability.

This poses a rather challenging paradox: Continue reading

How to expand Outlook’s preview area with a single keystroke

Is your preview area squashed so narrow that you can’t comfortably read messages in Outlook’s main window? I’ll show you how you can use a single keystroke to expand it to read your messages, and then contract it again. This is an incredibly simple tip, but I’m amazed at how much it has changed my email experience.

By default, Outlook divides its main window into three sections: navigation pane, message list and the preview area. If you don’t have a wide screen, the preview area is squashed up against the right hand side, and is not really comfortable to use for reading messages — just for scanning them to see if they need to be opened in a separate window for more attention.

This frustrates me, as I like to use the main window for actually reading my messages. I’ve tried widening the preview area at the expense of narrowing the message list, but if the message list is too narrow, it will take up 2 lines for each message, i.e. show only half the number of messages as before — not good, since I also like to see as much of my inbox as possible in a single glance. Continue reading

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.