The entire point of email is that it is the "leave a message and I'll get back to you" mode of communication for the Internet. It is not the "respond right now" mode - that is what IM and chat rooms and other real-time communications are.
I have things to do too, you know, and keeping track of someone else's schedule in order to be able to send them an email isn't on the list. The whole point of email is that I can send on my schedule, and you can read it on yours. Now you're taking that away from me and forcing me onto your schedule.
All one needs to do is put a vacation autoresponder on their email account, and then have the self-control to not read email while they're out.
A major cause of email overload is that senders don't respect the "you can read it on yours" part of that statement. Instead, they send emails requesting info that they need to act on within a specific window of time (usually hours or days). This implicitly assigns recipients a time limit, because responding too late would be considered rude. If you're receiving 500+ emails a day that expect a prompt response, you don't stand a chance.
Communication works both ways. If you can't be bothered to take my schedule into account, then don't contact me. Complaining about this is akin to complaining about someone having a secretary.
This issue is addressed with a standard "Out of Office" response.
The difference here is that Dave is making everyone who emailed him wait until some future date to re-send any non-urgent message.
It significantly reduces the workload for Dave but increases the workload for others.
I'd be curious to hear the reaction of people who emailed him and had to wait to re-send their message.
Yes, but that's to be expected. If you're a very popular person, people should have to compete for your time. That's marginally inconvenient for them, yes, but it makes your life livable. It's like important CEOs having a secretary.
I've never understood why busy people don't use staff to "pre-clean" the inbox. Especially if you get dozens of emails a day. After a vacation (heck, every day), I spend a lot of time deleting spam, daily reports, and threads I'm cc'd in (but get resolved by others).
For 3 years now, I've had a full-time assistant who filters all my email, handles the FAQs, and only leaves a few per-day for me - just the ones that only I know the answer to.
Anyone interested in this, feel free to email me for details.
Most of my friends who have admin assistants do have their admin assistants do this. The admin assistant prioritizes every incoming email.
They respond to the ones they can, forward on emails better suited for other people and flag important emails for their boss
if anybody requires an urgent response from me, they can try a synchronous method of communication. in the meantime, i've got things to do.
Dave's problem isn't self-control while on vacation. It's the mountain of email he'll have when he gets back. He very well might have a full-time week of just responding to email after a trip.
(A friend of mine just got back from his honeymoon, and it took him two full-time days to clean out his inbox - and he's a startup founder, not an internationally known author/speaker like Dave.)
If I go away on holiday, I reserve a few hours of my first work day when I get back to scanning through email and working out when I'm going to reply. It seems to work reasonably well - occasionally I'll get someone who didn't know I was away grumbling about a late reply but a quick apology usually satisfies them.
As a sysadmin who ends up getting a lot of autoresponder messages (e.g. in response to emails sent from a website, or from mailing lists) they are an unbelievably irritating 'feature' which I wish had never been invented - although most of the annoyance is down to the fact that the vast majority of autoresponders don't seem to remember whether you've already sent them a message, so they reply every time.
You are free to decide if your gem of wisdom is important enough to actually notice if I get it, or just fling it into the ether. Your call.
Consider the case where Dave's response causes the sender to realize, "Oh, well, I'll take care of the issue this other way then."
That's one fewer email Dave will have to deal with when he returns. The traditional out-of-office strategy would result in the initial email, and possibly even a second "Oh, don't worry about it, I already took care of it." followup email.
Before I left, I asked if I could form a small team and take part in a 2-3 month project. They had initially planned on a team of 20, but I felt that small teams, left alone and working in small timeboxes, could perform just as well.
Of course, we performed much better than the larger team, but the reason I tell the story is this: for purposes of my own experiment, I stopped reading emails.
The customer loved what we were doing, and expanded the project some. I think it lasted 5 or 6 months total. During that entire time I never turned on my email program.
I finally left the job. God knows how many thousands of emails built up in my inbox. But it was never a problem.
It was also one of the nicer experiences I've had in technology. The team just called each other or walked to each other's cube and chatted when we needed to talk, and the day was nicely free of useless distractions.
Why? I think the problem with email (and IM and FB now) is that everything has the same interruption power. The email from HR with the monthly newsletter has the same ability to disrupt your day as the email from your accountant telling you some terribly important financial news. All of it involves you switching contexts, scanning the subject line, and then deciding to deep-dive on the material or not. Hell, by the time you've switched context, you might as well read the article: your concentration is shot. Ten seconds of scanning an email header might take five or ten minutes to recover from. It's not a good trade-off. Of course, there's also the fact that people email/IM/FB others simply because they can, whether they have anything of import to say or not. You'd think twice if you had to walk over to somebody's cube to show them a picture of a cat, but you wouldn't blink an eye to post an article with the same content to 100 people on FB.
Daniel, thanks for talking about this, because it's made me realize how different people's perspectives are when it comes to this technology. I started using IM in seventh grade, and for me it's always been a tool for social distraction. Recently I've started using it for business and for thesis interviews, but I still don't turn it on unless I'm expecting small talk with friends. Ditto Facebook, which was created my sophomore year in high school and the point of which was to give other people opportunities to small talk with you. If I say ten trivial things a day, then other people have ten chances to start a conversation they might not have started otherwise. I dated a girl who I basically met on Facebook Chat, and I strengthened a lot of friendships with people I rarely saw IRL but bullshitted with online a lot. Yet this is social behavior rather than productive. Its only aim is conversation.
Of course, this social software also makes it much harder to pay attention to work, which is why I dropped Facebook for Google+ and now am slowly phasing away from Google+ too. It's a shame that these social sites don't differentiate play from meaningful construction. Come up with a way of filtering people's noise from their signal, so that you can decide: do I want to see important information? Or do I want a lot of time-wasting bullshit? (There is a time for such things, I feel; I've tried cutting it out of my life entirely but it's no fun to be all business all the time.) Perhaps this is a problem that should be solved by using two separate mediums for communication, but that's inconvenient.
Anyway, it's food for thought, and it's going to make me reconsider how freely I fling nonsense around the internet. Thank you.
But my IM client will be open almost 24h
I read email only once or twice a day and have turned off all email notifications, which eliminates this objection to email.
Footnote: "turned off all email notifications": exception: I set procmail to play some music whenever my machine gets an email from my girlfriend, but that is a temporary measure designed to condition her and reward her (with prompt responses) for emailing instead of calling.
His girlfriend who will be more likely to change her behaviour in response to this exercise, rather than him (i.e. he's already conditioned himself).
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Dealing with work IM is my next productivity project. It was okay when it was just the developers, but as my role has expanded so has my IM list. I've thought about just turning it off, but I want to remain available to the SVPs who ask rare, but usually important questions. I may just select all the PMs and block them :p
Not that it works perfectly, but the default of dumping everything into email is a problem. There are several other, possibly more appropriate methods of communication (phone, in person, waiting until the status meeting, break room chat, lunchtime chat, etc). Email is just the easiest and therefore most likely to be abused.
Personally I prefer email for this reason. Too often I've seen coworkers who become "the guy who helps". The guy doesn't say no, who answers questions that have nothing to do with their job. I like to be helpful but I don't want to be the one who fixes everyone else's problems to the detriment of getting my own work done. It's easier to say "you should ask Joe, he's in charge of that process" in an email, for me anyways.
I think you encapsulated YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, among a myriad of other websites with that last comment. That's why I just don't turn any of those on at work. People don't even mean to distract you, but inevitably, they just do. I also keep throw-away email addresses for receiving the (mostly unnecessary) email updates those websites send for notifications and the like. The borders between procrastination and working have blurred so much these days that, even when all studies demonstrate humans cannot and should not multi-task, it's become the norm for people to work with loud (not classical or meditative) music playing, several social networks and news media open in a bunch of tabs, and a miscellaneous distracting website in the background, all while they work urgently on an assignment.
Unfortunately people waking to your cube has even more disruption power so I'm not sure why you preferred that option. Perhaps you were surrounded by people who used very careful judgement before calling or walking to someone's cube. But "Do you have a second" is not enough. You've already taken up three seconds, and now I have to respond, and to do that I have to guess whether what you have to say is important to me right now or not. My focus is gone. This is why I prefer to work remotely. I decide when to switch focus and for what reason.
Was this before things like automatic filters existed?
Not every e-mail has the same interrupting power in my gmail account. Anything in my "notifications" folder is something that can wait a week. Anything in "receipts" is probably just Amazon reminding me that I bought something. "facebook" can basically be completely wiped once a day without any glaring loss.
Instead, everyone wants an AI solution that automatically separates the important from the fluff. I hate to be a pessimist, but I'm doubtful we'll produce a notable success in this area any time soon, if ever. Priority Inbox certainly isn't it. I spent so much time double-checking its often-wrong results that it made more sense to just stop relying on it.
The unfortunate fact is that the concept of "importance" is vague at best. It differs from person to person, email to email. In many cases, the data that makes an email important can't be found in the inbox at all, and only exists in the real world. If I just met some guy in the hall, and promised that I'd respond to his next email, how will your program take that into account? What about online bank statements, which I normally delete instantly, but which can sometimes be helpful in reminding me to check my account? What about a Facebook message from a girl I find cute vs all the other Facebook messages?
Even humans have a hard time determining the importance of other people's email. Here's a fun experiment: Go through your last 100 emails and write done which ones were important to you. Now have a friend go through the same emails and try to predict which ones you thought were important. You may be surprised at the difference.
The way it deals with your scenario of meeting somebody new and then getting an email from them is that any email sent directly to you from a new person is marked as important.
The way it deals with your second scenario is machine learning. Everyone's priority inbox behaves differently depending on how you train it.
I've spoken to several people who indicate their busyness by how many hundred emails they have to wade through when they return from holiday, and even met people who seem to accumulate this much email while actually doing their job.
Every so often these people will remark that they've deleted everything older than a certain number of days, on the understanding that if it was something really important then the person would get back to them again.
This is obviously very frustrating for the people sending the emails (and I'm sure I've fallen victim more than once) but I do see the merit in this approach: some people have so many demands made of them that a key part of their job is saying "no" to a lot of requests, and deleting emails is one way of doing that.
Deleting email is a very basic filter and it will generate a lot of false positives. But if something is really important then the person who needs something done will find another way to contact you, or they will contact someone else who can get things moving. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, as they say.
I don't think I'd even consider this approach with a personal email address though, because usually that mail is more important to my life that things sent to my work email address. (Restricting who knows your personal email address is another type of filter, I suppose.)
Email is a disaster because it lacks flow control. In person, if too many people try to talk to me at once, they will have to wait their turn, and some will eventually give up or move a little faster when they see that others are waiting. Email lacks this dynamic -- everyone gets to talk at once. Disaster.
If you want to compare it to something, compare it to regular (snail) mail. It's exactly the same thing.
The solution Dave chose (deleting emails while on holiday) is bad because messages get lost, and it's only caused by his lack of will to NOT check his email every 5 minutes. It completely defeats the purpose of mail.
Imagine disabling your regular mailbox while you go on vacation. What good would that do ?
No it's not. Email occupies the space right in between IM and snail mail. It is way more convenient for me to send email than it is for me to write a letter, and that email sends more quickly. People email you for all sorts of reasons they'd never write a letter. I get tech support requests for Tumblr themes I designed three years ago, and people asking me questions about things I've written, and friends asking me what's up, and lots and lots of email from people at my work. Because the Internet lets me publish without going through a journal or magazine, I receive all the comments that, if I were a traditional columnist, would be going to my editor instead. I'm not receiving as much email as I used to when I kept a regularly-frequented blog, but even so it's weary how much communication I receive.
If I spend a weekend without checking my email, then my flow is disrupted. I have too many messages to respond to them all properly. So I prioritize them and answer many of them curtly or delete some without replying at all. Or, I make an excuse to check my email over the weekend.
If I went on vacation, I'd be incredibly anxious about the upcoming email deluge awaiting me on my return. The temptation to check my email and relieve the burden would be immense. I can sympathize with wanting to disable my inbox until my return.
(The other difference between email and snail mail is that with email you know immediately that your message was not received. With snail mail you're waiting at least two days. That's a frustrating wait. The convenience of email makes it less bothersome when somebody inconveniences your attempt to reach them.)
For many people, email is an absolute train wreck.
The solution Dave chose is bad because messages get lost
This is the point. Dave would say that his solution is good precisely because messages get lost. Dave is effectively increasing the barrier to receiving an email, and filtering out emails that don't reach that barrier, which is an economically reasonable approach to the problem. (This particular approach may not end up being the right one, but it is worth a try.)
If you're really getting that level of email chaff, cut it off at the source. Just throwing out half of it is the Wrong Thing To Do.
I think he need an overall change in how many people email him and how he handles email while not on vacation as well as vacation. Deleting emails seems like a short term solution.
People respond positively when they get an email saying "I returned from paternity leave to 1,532 emails and I'm worroed I may miss something important from you. If the matter you raised while I was away still needs attention, please resend it to me now."
The problem with it is that it sends a message that, "I am more important than you, and nothing you say can possibly be important enough to be worth keeping."
Now, maybe that is even true. But slapping people in the face with it isn't a good habit.
At its most crass level, an email sabbatical is when you make all of your email bounce. But you can't simply turn off your email without pissing off countless people in your life. Thus, an email sabbatical is actually a series of steps to let you step away from your inbox guilt-free and return to an empty inbox upon your return.
I'm assuming it went just fine, but it'd be nice to read about. Especially how many "urgent" emails he got regardless, and how urgent they really were.
It's actually not a bad queue management process overall. Local processor offline / overloaded? Drop all but the very highest priority (for email: immediate family, $BOSS) messages.
The late Joe Barr describes this obliquely in his discussion of the development of BitKeeper (git's predecessor as the Linux kernel code repository):
I'd have gone the whole way here, there's no (real..) reason for 'urgent' mails during vacation.
Is there a standard convention for "keep-as-later-reference"-subject?
There are many reasons why writing emails is easy but replying is hard. The first is probably that an email that requires a short processing time from the point of view of the reader (read, understand, and possibly reply) must be written very well. Not everybody is good at it, but everybody will send you an email for the most unimportant reason.
So in this moment my inbox contains 5700 unread emails. Not everything is a message directly addressed to me, a few are related to mailing lists, a few about notifications of different types. But there is definitely a percentage of real emails that would require a reply in that list.
So how I deal with this? Using the most brutal of the systems, as brutal is the email problem itself IMHO.
I consider my gmail account as a stream, like twitter. I use the gmail priority inbox to do a first filtering, taking the same account without priority inbox in the iPhone (so that when I read emails with the iPhone there is some chance that I read messages from the 'unimportant' pool).
I also set gmail to show as much emails as possible in a single page. So this is what happens: every email has a time to live this way, from the moment it appears in my inbox, to the moment it shifts away because too many new messages arrived in the meantime.
I reply to conversations in a most-urgent-processed-first fashion. All the emails shifting before they get a chance to be processed are lost from my point of view.
This allows me to set a max cap to the amount of work I've to do for emails. This will make people not happy about you from time to time, but are you ready to trade your work, what you think is important, just to reply to messages that many times are not important enough to be sent in the first instance?
"I'm on vacation and will be deleting all my accumulated emails when I get back. If it's something important, please resend me the email after <date-of-return>."
Personally I think this is fair because if it's important, the onus should be on the sender to make sure that the receiver reads it. Chances are 99% of his emails were just cc'es anyway, but if it's something that really needs a decision, then the sender should resend it.
I've done this several times and it's always worked out well. It's funny how issues that people think are urgent sometimes resolve themselves.
There was a detailed, longish autoreply explaining many things, but the gist of it was:
It would kind of spoil the break to come home from it with a
mountain of email to answer, so I'm not accepting any email while I'm away. If you need to reach me, please re-send your message after the Nth.
If you need to speak to someone immediately, here are some handy contacts:
For everyone else, if you make enough $, hire a personal assistant / secretary to stay on top of your email and schedule.