Sunday, February 7, 2016

Everyone Hates Email

Image by brunogirin, CC.
Email is a perpetual pain in the workplace. It hurts productivity. It creates stress. And it makes people pretty unhappy. Too many workers feel like they are slaves to email.

I was a guest speaker at a corporate retreat last week, where I spoke about email overload and how to prevent it. Before I put the finishing touches on my talk, I interviewed a couple of people who work for the company. They are prestigious music agents who represent some pretty big name performers. 

Some of these agents get 2,000 emails a day. Two of them told me they feel like they’re in a good place when their inbox has only 200 to 300 unread messages.

That is an overwhelming amount of email!

So what are some of the problem that create so much email? A huge part of the job for these music agents is communication, so it makes sense that they might have more email than the average knowledge worker.

As with most instances of email overload, part of the problem is that a whole lot of their "email" is probably not really meant to be email.

What I mean by that is we use email for a variety of purposes, and while those purposes might boil down to “communication” in one way or another, they are often something more specific. For example, when someone asks you to do something via email, that’s a task assignment. Email is not very good at handling task assignments. The manager of the task can’t tell when you’ve read the task, if you’ve accepted, whether you are able to make the due date, and what else is on your plate that might take priority.

Another way we often use email that isn’t very email-friendly is to distribute information that’s optional. Let’s say a team leader sends a message to her whole team informing them that there will be a happy hour three days from now. The message arrives with the same sense of urgency as every other email, even though it’s not urgent at all. In fact, it probably doesn’t make much of a difference if recipients read that email today or tomorrow, or never. A message of that nature would be better left pinned to a cork board in the office kitchen… or on a company intranet, or in an opt-in communication tool such as Slack.

Speaking at this company event was a wonderful opportunity for me to take a step back and remember the common problems that most knowledge workers combat with email. When I first started learning about the jobs that these music agents do, I was worried that they would have very specific problems that were unique to their line of work. But the more I talked to them, the more I realized they are running up against the same walls as most other knowledge workers.

If you'd like to read more about email problems and solutions, I've been writing about that very topic for the last few weeks on my other blog ProductivityReport.org.

Monday, December 28, 2015

10 Digital Cleanup Projects To Do Before January 1

We're in the stretch between Christmas and New Year's Day, an ideal time to get organized, or re-organized. Most workers get days off, but people don't necessarily travel, meaning they have a little bit of time at home, time to regroup, reprioritize, think about the new year.

In some cultures, New Year's Day is a time to clean. I'm a believer that cleaning is essential to being organized. You have to declutter, get rid of junk, otherwise you're left trying to organize it, which is fruitless.

The more stuff you have, the more it weighs on your mind. While many people get this concept in the physical world, they don't always see how it works in the digital world. Think of it the same way you might think of emotional baggage. It can weigh on you even if you it has no mass.

If you have a day or two, or even a few hours, off this week, I highly recommend taking a little time to re-organize something in your digital life that could use a little decluttering, or tackle a clean-up or organization project that you've procrastinated doing.

In my weekly Get Organized column on PCMag.com, I recommended these 10 digital clean-up projects to do before January 1. I'll list them here, but see the full article for more detail and instruction.

  1. Get a backup service and back up your computers and other devices.
  2. Run a tuneup utility to make your computer fast again.
  3. Get a password manager and let it fix your reused passwords, essential for fraud prevention.
  4. Sweep your inbox by moving old messages to a new folder. You don't have to delete anything. Just move it to a new folder. I bet by March you'll be convinced you don't need any of those old messages and can throw them out.
  5. Take control of your personal finances; I recommend using the free app and website Mint.com.
  6. Clean up your phone, and make sure you add emergency contact information to your lock screen.
  7. Consolidate your digital photos to one service; Flickr has some really good tools for this job.
  8. Update your LinkedIn profile and resume.
  9. Run a quick security checkup on your Facebook and Google accounts.
  10. Clean up your music and podcast playlists.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Frog Songs

Frog songs.

A whir of high pitched purring, an earful of life despite two days of debilitating rain. The frog start to sing at night, after the light dissipates, the sky temporarily holds its breath, and the water in the street settles into a glassy surface. No more auto-rickshaws, motor scooters, cars, or bicycles making waves. The lapping on the sidewalks fades. The frog song reverberates.


A young, skinny man in a freight truck across the street has been sleeping in the cabin the last two nights. The first night he climbed onto truck’s roof, which was covered by a tarp, and began bailing it out with a empty yogurt container. Last night he brushed his teeth using that same cup. This morning, he leans out the window for air. Indian pop music rings tinny and without bass, possibly from the radio, maybe from the last drips of battery power in his mobile phone.

An older but equally skinny man who delivers 50 cents’ worth of flowers a few times a week to my neighbor rolls up on his bicycle, his feet dipping into the murky brown water with each down-pedal. “What on earth is he doing out there?” I say to myself, and watch as he hops off his clunky bike into calf-deep water, bumps his kickstand into place, pulls two small bags from his handlebars, and carries them up the stoop. Delivery as promised.


Flooding December 2, 2015 in Teynampet, Chennai, India.
One glance out the window makes it seem like we’re trapped by streets that have turned into canals. Water fills every inch of low-lying ground as far as the eye can see. From my second-floor balcony, I can survey the scene in three directions. A few police officers slosh down the dead-end, doing their usual rounds, but in flip-flops with their pants rolled up to their knees. A woman hikes up her magenta sari and talks to neighbors in Tamil, presumably spreading word of the conditions, though I don’t speak the language and can’t know for sure. The usual sounds of construction died out two weeks ago when the monsoon rains first let us know that they were coming with an unstoppable force this year.

We measure the height of the water relative to the sidewalks, which are at least a foot off the ground. Yesterday most of the sidewalks were covered. Today, they are slick with slime, but proudly exposing their cement mass to the air and cloudy skies, like a puffed-up chest. Around the corner just south of here, the entire neighborhood is submerged two feet deep at least, the water having crept into people’s yards and slipped beneath their doors until suddenly it's up to their ankles, and they're deciding whether to stay or go.


Nominal flooding in Teynampet, Chennai, India, December 2, 2015.
Further south, the Adyar River has overflown. This is India. The river is not clean. It smells putrid year-round. Everyone who lives or lived along the banks should have evacuated a week ago. The more expensive properties nearby have, by now, all been claimed by the water, too. Where the water finds concrete walls and wooden gates trying to contain it, it pushes against them and wears them down. It breaks free, rushing out violently, sweeping up everything in its path, tree branches, motorcycles, dumpsters, people. “This is not your home,” the water says. “This is nothing more than low-lying earth.” Try to control it, and it will come from the sky instead. The water simply keeps coming. It sprawls and invades and cannot be diverted or contained or sandbagged. The water simply goes. 

The Adyar dumps its filthy water, the excrement of Chennai, into the Bay of Bengal where it eventually mixes in with the Indian Ocean. But now, there is no where left for the water to go. It’s as if the sea itself is already full.

Just north, less than a quarter mile from here, the road is dry and a few businesses are open. It seems implausible, as absurd as the flower seller who made good on his promise to deliver. Though I’ve only lived in India five months, I’ve been here long enough to know better than to try and make sense of every incongruity. This is India. Who knows why anything happens the way it does?

Our generator miraculously isn’t out of diesel yet, though we’ve shut down everything non-essential. No air conditioners. No dehumidifiers. Every electronic device is charged to 100 percent. Our bags are packed, just in case. The dog can tell something is up. She follows me around the house, closer than usual, into the bathroom, into the kitchen, onto the balcony even though she hates being outside. I sit on an arm chair with my feet dangling into her bed. It brings a little relief. She lays down and falls asleep with the tip of tongue sticking out.

Every ray of sunlight is a glimmer of hope that more rain will not come. The wind blows the clouds together, though, and sprinkles make new pock marks on the water below.

The worst part is two-fold: Knowing that the rain is not done with us yet, and waiting to see just how bad it will get before deciding whether to flee.

At night, the sun doesn’t so much set as simply recede, almost unnoticed, the way I hope the waters will. As the light turns everything blue and gray, the invisible frogs begin their trill in unison, somehow on cue, a miracle of nature. Their song reminds me that all is not lost, that life will go on, steadily, and without explanation as to how. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

You Can't Change India

In July, I moved to India. For the last few months, I've been adjusting in a million different ways.

How I Got Here

Earlier this year, my partner got a great job offer and accepted it. It took close to six years to seal the deal, which is to say that our move abroad was no big surprise. We had long hoped for it and dreamed about it.

The deal with the job is that we will live in a new country every two to three years, but we don't have a whole lot of say over which country.

And that's how we ended up in India.

A Little About India

We're in Chennai, which is not nearly as bustling as Mumbai or filled with glamorous palaces, the way New Delhi is. Plenty of non-Indian people have never heard of Chennai. It was formerly called Madras, if that helps.

Chennai sits on the south east coast of the country, and by population, it is the fourth largest city in India. Despite its size, tourists don't flock to Chennai. There isn't much here in the way of sightseeing.

Elliot's Beach, Chennai, India

Westerners and far east Asian people stand out here. I stand out. Sometimes people ask to take photos with me, usually teenagers, but sometimes families. Maybe it's the result of having lived in big cities before, but I don't feel uncomfortable with any of it. Stares of curiosity don't bother me. People are either extremely friendly, or they mind their own business. Either way, I feel very safe on the street. Of course, I do exercise basic common sense and caution. I don't walk alone in unfamiliar areas, and I keep aware of my surroundings.

Adjusting to India

The people of Chennai couldn't be more generous or hardworking, but life here is tough.

A fisherman's village and market, Chennai, India

Like in any developing country, running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity aren't a given for many people. There isn't any mass transit other than buses that don't necessarily come to a full stop when people want to get on or off. (A subway system is in the works, but it's years from completion.) Air pollution is visibly bad. Rubble and trash lines most streets. During monsoon season this year, which has another three or four weeks left, flooding brought water waist high into many people's homes. 

The hardest adjustment for me isn't the lack of infrastructure because we live in a very nice apartment with most of the comforts of the American life and then some. We have ample resources, such as a backup generator for when the power goes out, a distiller that makes drinkable water all day long, air filters in every room, and more air conditioning units than seems necessary. We have a service team that comes to our home and fixes anything that breaks. The cost of living is so low, we can afford to hire a part-time housekeeper. Our building is built a few feet above street level, so even when the monsoon rains pummel the area with water, it never comes close to breaching the front door.

Nominal flooding in a well-to-do neighborhood in Chennai, India

The real adjustment has nothing to do with living comfortably. It has everything to do with privilege.

The Guilt of Privilege

I've felt the guilt of privilege before, but never to this extreme. In Chennai, I see people everyday who have so much less than I do. Every day. I see them washing their clothes under a hand-pump water well. I see them carrying bowls of dirt on their heads at a construction site. I see them pushing their five-year-olds down the sidewalk to try and sell me cheap coloring books, knowing that their little faces have an inherent advantage at pressuring me into buy something.

Kids playing soccer in what's left of a flooded field in Chennai, India

I see all these people, and I know that there's nothing I can do to change their situation or the happenstance that left them born into their life and me born into mine. There's nothing I can do to make the world more fair or equitable, much less a country of 1.25 billion people where I am an outsider.

When we arrived, we heard a lot of advice from other Americans. I took to heart the words of one woman who said, "The best way to experience India is to dive right in. You're going to feel uncomfortable. Some days, you're going to want a shower after it. But you have to let go and jump in."

From my own experience and research, I decided that the best attitude would be to not try too hard to make sense of anything. India is what it is, I told myself. There are going to be a ton of things I don't understand, and if I try too hard to find explanations or reasoning, I'm going to drive myself crazy. I went to an Indian wedding recently and asked a bunch of questions of Indian people about the ceremony and customs. One of the guests said, "Oh, I don't understand what's happening at all." We got to talking, and it seems that a lot of the confusion and inability to make sense of how things work in India is just as perplexing to Indians as it is to foreigners.

In any event, I decided that in general, it's better to observe and accept what's around me rather than struggle to find an answer.

But the most memorable piece of advice, the one that has stuck, is this: "You can't change India."