Saturday, March 26, 2016

Email's Unique Problems

Email causes unique problems in the workplace that we don't see in other forms of communication. It's not the technology necessarily that creates them, but rather the company culture that's formed around email.

When we look at alternative office-place communication channels, such as Slack, HipChat, work-management platforms, project management platforms, and so forth, we often find that they are still interruptive and distracting. Slack is no less distracting than email. But it's distracting in a slightly different way, and one that I would argue is less destructive to productivity.

The Simple Part of the Email Problem: Interruptions and Task-Switching
We know that email is interruptive because of its notifications and that we lose time task-switching between our primary task and email. Notifications also break our attention from the task at hand and divert our focus to see what's happening now. So it's not just time lost spent task-switching, but also time spent reorienting ourselves and getting back into the flow of our work. When we break our focus to check email, we end up with fewer periods of uninterrupted focus. Those periods of uninterrupted focus are necessary for getting our hardest (and usually most important) work done. That hard work is usually the work companies are most interested in seeing us do from an ROI perspective.

But that's not the full story.

The problem with email specifically doesn't end with the interruption, the glance at the notification, the skim of the subject line, just to be sure the message isn't urgent. The problem goes to the heart of why we must check.

The Harder Part of the Email Problem: Are You a 'Team Player?'
Many organizations have a company culture around email that says, "If I don't reply to this email right away, I am not a team player. I am not paying attention to my job. I am failing to be responsive." But there isn't much basis behind that sentiment.

Email messages that feel urgent aren't always urgent in reality. Even emails that contain tasks that the receiver believes should be done today or now don't need to be today or now or sometimes at all. One piece of research suggests that a good percentage of office emails that contain tasks simply expire after a time. If the task doesn't get done by the time the expiration date rolls around, it either didn't need to get done so urgently after all, or the sender found another way to complete the task by him/herself. A clear example is information gathering. Email a colleague to ask a question. If the colleague doesn't reply, the sender might look up the information or ask someone else. The receiver of that email would have believed it to be an important and urgent email, especially if it comes from a superior, when in fact it was not urgent at all. Sometimes we even experience this phenomenon the day after a long flight or being out sick. We scan our inbox and find messages that are essentially dead in the sense that they no longer have any relevance.

It's not entirely clear why this problem occurs in email but not in other forms of communication technologies, but it probably has to do with email's history of development and the company culture around email.

For More...
I've been exploring a lot of productivity problems caused by or related to email over at You can read some of my more in-depth exploration of the research on the trouble with email there.

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

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, 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
  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.