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In the late 1990s I worked for a large government agency as part of a job that employed over 1200 contractors (Welcome to government work.) Each day I'd get incredible amounts of email -- most of which was completely useless to me.

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.




> 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.


IM for me is as asynchronous as email. It will never interrupt me like, say a phone call.

But my IM client will be open almost 24h


>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.

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.


Oh man - I'd love to see how she'd react to the knowledge that she is being conditioned.


He's the one who is responding to her promptly. Methinks he's the one being conditioned.


No, he's already conditioned himself to answer certain "high-priority" emails quickly while responding with high latency to voicemails.

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).


I'd love to see what your procmail setup is like.


Easy enough for me to show you. The relevant recipe is as follows. The c means make a copy of the message, i.e., keep going even if the rule is a hit. The h means save or pipe only the headers. /usr/bin/afplay is specific to OS X.

  :0
  *^from:.*persephone
  {
      :0 c:
      $DEFAULT

      :0 h
      | /usr/bin/afplay --time 6.2 /o/music/live_at_leeds_2/16_miracle_cure.mp3
  }


I check my work email 3 times/day. Once in the morning, after lunch, and before quitting for the day. Since my email is on another box and I check it through an RDP session, it's easy to follow my rules. After I started following this schedule my productivity has gone up A LOT. At first I worried I would miss something important like a server going down, but if there is an emergency I ended getting a phone call anyways.

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


You didn't find it distracting when people walked to your cube to talk? Or was this a very infrequent occurrence (and/or only by team-members, not the business)?


I worked in a similar environment once (Large government contractor on a NASA program). There was lots of cube-walking, and generally, it is a distraction. BUT- You know that when you walk into someone's cube to ask them a question, it will be a bit of a distraction and it takes a little effort, so you make sure you need to before you do. Similarly, when someone walks into your cube, you know they think it is more important than something that would have been sent via email.

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.


I think that works with other developers who understands how interrupting someone in the middle of coding is a big deal, but I've worked with PMs and QA people who didn't get the message that asking 4 or 5 questions a day is not cool.

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.


True. And there is also the guy who does nothing but wander between cubes, chatting about nothing. More of a government thing than a startup thing, to be sure. But it puts a cramp in the system.


"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."

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.


I rarely consider email, or FB to have any interruption power at all. If I'm busy working on something, that is what I'm doing and that is what is important right now, not an email. I usually check email if I'm taking a break.

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.


> 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.

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.




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