Email is Not My Job

Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to do my job. At least, that’s what I tell myself. And yet, more and more often, I find myself spending most of my time writing, answering, filing and deleting emails. It has gotten absurd.

I’m not alone. The problem of email overload is so bad, my college is drafting policies to try and define who can email who and the rules for using email in the workplace. The policy won’t help. Email is a useful, but limited, communication tool. We overuse it and try to make our emails do things for us they were never intended to do.

The problem with email is that messages are wickedly easy to send and, on the receiving end, wickedly difficult to deal with. Handling my email inbox usually feels like hand to hand combat with somebody else’s to do list. Every email brings with it a decision. Do I reply? Do I delegate this? Does this person really need my response? Is the sender really a person anyway or is it just a semi-clever software program spewing invitations to review someone’s latest [fill in the blank]. Many messages get deleted. Others get flagged. Some get answered or delegated. Every email is a decision. It is exhausting.

Enough is enough. I’m building some new rules for myself regarding email. I want efficiency. I want clarity. I want control.

My brother manages manufacturing workflow processes. He treats his inbox like a project. Everything that comes in gets immediately color coded. Certain senders (his boss, his boss’s boss) are colored special colors to help them stand out. Every message is quickly reviewed for action type and given a color category using Outlook’s category options. One color for urgent. Another color for not urgent. Anything that doesn’t deserve a color is deleted.

I’ve been working with this idea for a week now. I already have my most important email senders pushed into a priority, VIP email folder. Messages from my boss, my staff and my related work teams get pushed to the VIP folder. Messages in this folder can be viewed as a group. They also display on my iPad as a special alert to help me keep track.

All incoming messages are quickly scanned for possible action. Easy things get answered or addressed right away. Most things aren’t easy and require a color. Red for urgent. Pink for important but not urgent. Green for waiting for an answer or more information. Purple for things to read.

My new rule: every message gets scanned and immediately answered, deleted or categorized. I then use Outlook category filters to view my urgent emails all together. This helps me prioritize my work for the day. After those are gone, I will view the important, but not urgent set. Some day, in theory, I will read the purple items labeled to read.

It isn’t a perfect system. I’m still not entirely in control of my inbox but, after a week of using categories and filters, I already find myself less stressed about the hemorrhaging inbox. I’m dealing with the things that need my attention most a little more quickly. At least, I think I am.

I still need to fine tune the system. Today, I added another step. I close my email software when I’m not actively using it. Today, I read email first thing in the morning, again mid-morning and then right before lunch. I opened email midafternoon and then once more before I left for the day. The rest of the time email stayed closed.

From time to time, one of my VIP senders showed an alert on my iPad. I glanced quickly over to determine if the message was urgent, knowing that truly urgent things always arrive via phone call or text message.

It felt good to close my email when I wasn’t actively using it. I felt more in control.

I have written about my personal struggles with email before. You may think I’m daft. You may think I’m making things too complicated. The truth is I’m just trying to feel more in control and capture that feeling that email is a tool I use rather than a tool than uses me.

You may be reading this and feeling upset because you’ve sent me an email or 5 and haven’t yet gotten a response. Try not to be upset. There’s a good chance your email to me has a pink cast, in which case I’ll get to it.

There is also, of course, a chance that your email(s) have been deleted. If that’s the case, you are going to need to decide how many emails you want to send me to try and get my attention. My new rules are still young so I’m not sure how they will play out. I am declaring a kind of war here. Email is not my job. It is a tool I use to help me do my job.

I need your help. What rules or processes do you use to manage your email? Comments most welcome.

Vacation Ritual for the 21st Century

No one can stay connected all the time. It isn’t healthful, and it isn’t practical. You don’t have to travel to put healthy distance between yourself and your work. Sometimes, you just need to unplug.

My work life has been pretty hectic the past few months. I love the work that I do and I have recently had the chance to take on new, complex, interesting challenges. Still, I have run myself a little ragged. The term “overclocked” keeps passing through my head lately.

So today I am starting a much needed vacation, one week plus a few extra days to carry past my daughter’s sixth birthday. When I leave work for more than a day, I leave good people in charge and trust my team to make good decisions. I try to make myself available by phone and/or email in case of emergencies. Emergencies don’t often arise in the library. Still, I often monitor email while on vacation just to “”keep up with things”. This is crazy. I don’t need to keep up with things while on vacation. Not keeping up with things is pretty much the point of taking a vacation.

When I got home today, I decided to try something new. I disconnected my work email account from my phone. I can still scroll through my email once  in the evening, if I want. But the act of physically disconnecting my phone from work email felt really good. When email is too accessible, there is an irrational urge to check it often. Unplugging my work email from my phone prevents me from feeling the temptation to check it. Making work email inconvenient while on vacation makes “checking in” or “staying connected” feel less necessary.

I know I’m not that important. My team gets along fine without me. I know they will call if something  important actually happens that needs my immediate attention.

In the meantime, disconnecting for a little while is the only way to really get the benefit of time off. Do what you can to stop thinking about work when you aren’t at work so you can actually rest. Then, you can return more vital and focused, ready to pick up the work you left off, accomplishing stuff that matters.

Information Rituals

Update (11march2013) – This post misses the point. I consider this a first, misguided draft. I am still working with the idea of information rituals. Step one: figure out what information rituals need to accomplish.


I need to develop new information rituals. My current habits are not working for me. I have three email accounts — one personal, one for work, and one Gmail for capturing data posted to web forms. All three have become link hives,   hundreds of emails with nothing but unvisited links to sites I need or want to visit.

My email situation, though tragic, is not uncommon. But then consider the other places I have stashed unvisited links:

  • Google Bookmarks
  • starred posts in Google Reader
  • favorited tweets
  • Evernote for articles that require some action
  • Instapaper for articles to read during downtime
  • ScoopIt for articles to share with others
  • PDFs scattered across iBooks, Adobe Reader for iPad, Blue Fire and Dropbox

This is a mess. I not in control. If unvisited weblinks were physical objects, you would be watching my tearful family on Hoarders begging me to let these links go and just live a simple, uncluttered kind of life. I cannot let them go. I need these links. These links have something for me, some small but essential insight.

The problem here is discipline. My information habits lack purpose and rigor. My information habits are thoughtless and unexamined. I need clarity. I need a streamlined system that makes sense, and then, I need to develop the rigor required to operate and protect the system.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, I am kissed with a little bit of OCD. Some people wash incessantly. Some people drink or do drugs. Some people are compulsive about light switches. My manias are list-making and link catching.

I can’t stop catching interesting links. I am a librarian. I work on the web. I am online all day. I get interested in things. I share links. People share links with me. It is the nature of what I do.

I need a better system for organizing my link hoards into coherent clusters that can be dealt with, delegated or deleted.

I need new information rituals.

Something like this:

  • Only keep Google bookmarks that matter. If a link gets tagged read or explore, then read or explore that link. Delete the links that don’t matter.
  • Triage all interesting emailed links into one place. Maybe a folder inside one email account or a dedicated email account. Funnel all emailed links to that one place and prune that one place ruthlessly. Bookmark the links that matter. Delete all emails.
  • Do not favorite tweets or star items from your Google feed. Push them to the folder and deal with them when there’s time. Bookmark then delete.
  • Keep Evernote clean for links that require some follow-up or associate to a particular project, like this blog.
  • Read Instapaper articles daily.
  • Push all PDFs to iBooks because iBooks allows annotation and also allows organizing features on bookshelves. Adobe Reader and BlueFire  have no organizing features to prevent the tumble. Dropbox is crowded with other things.

There are the tenets of the faith. Here’s the ritual:

  • Read Facebook and Twitter in the morning, preferably via Flipboard. Push links as needed.
  • Read Google Feeds at lunch. Push links as needed.
  • Read ScoopIt in the late afternoon. Push links as needed.
  • Read Evernote before blogging in the evening. This is where the blogging ideas get saved.
  • Visit Google Bookmarks for new sites and to delete unneeded bookmarks.
  • Read Instapaper with evening leisure time.
  • Read PDFs as needed.

Fascinating. This is completely unsustainable and I sound like a complete lunatic.

Okay, you get the idea. I’m stopping now.

I need to think a bit more about the idea of information rituals, those habits of searching, finding, clicking and reading that get us through the day.

What are your information rituals? How well do they work for you?

Eradicate email!

So I’ve written a bit already about my personal war with email. Managing email happens to be my personal Achilles heel and is emblematic of the larger problems of information overload that challenge all of us.

Edudemic posted a helpful article about Chris Anderson’s very practical campaign to get email under control. The article quotes Anderson:

an email inbox has been aptly described as the to-do list that anyone in the world can add an item to. If you’re not careful, it can gobble up most of your working week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own true priorities.

Anderson’s image of email as the world’s open to-do list for me is pretty apt and gets right to the root of my problem with email. I can’t respond to it all, I can’t answer it all, and I can’t use it all. It piles in and there’s never any getting to the end of it. I have never witnessed Inbox Zero is my personal or professional life but know that, if I ever did, the relief would be short-lived. You have to sleep sometime.

I am prepared to declare war on email. If you are ready to join me, you may find Chris Anderson’s “Save Our Inboxes!” to be a useful manifesto to lay the battle lines. Take a look. Share it if you find it helpful. I am considering adding the link to my work email as a gift to my c0lleagues. Celebrate clarity. Attach attachments. Respect recipient’s time.

Did you like the Email Charter? Let me know. I need to know I’m not the only one ready for battle.

Email: The Battle Continues

I felt a bit embarrassed while admitting to my troubles managing my email. Since that post, I have had several interesting conversations with people about the problem of email and what a massive time suck dealing with email has become for all of us.

A friend I admire as one of the most driven, organized, on-top-of-it people around told me her email stresses her out daily and that checking email has become an unhealthy obsession. Every time her iPhone chimes, an angel looses its wings.

A vendor called today to get the pricing information she had requested twice by email. She said, “Its frightening how quickly that very important thing at the top of my email gets pushed down the list.”

A presenter today acknowledged 10,000 messages in her email inbox. I hope that wasn’t an exaggeration. I wanted to shake her hand. Or buy her a drink.

Here’s the problem I see: we have all somehow arrived at the conclusion that email is our job, that email is what we do. Somewhere along the line, I swallowed the belief that every email needs to be acknowledged, that there is a prize for how well or completely we deal with our messages. Email is the first communication we reach for yet is also the communication most likely to be lost, unread or deleted without consideration. Why do we expect everyone else to read our email when we do not always read all of their’s?

Tanya Joosten today described the problem as a noise and signal problem. Classic communication theory: the more noise there is on a channel, the greater the chance of signal loss. Truth.

So what’s the remedy? I’m still working on that.

In the meantime, my battle continues. I have tried to keep a clean inbox. No luck. At present there are still 48 emails received since May 1 that seem to require some action or acknowledgment on my part.

Email is a pain in the butt

Email is a pain in the butt. There, I said it. I hate email.

I haven’t blogged in a few weeks because I’ve been really busy with projects at work. I’ve been busy juggling several big projects, traveling a bit and going to lots and lots of meetings. I’m not complaining about that. The past few weeks I have done my best to keep up with the important things but have intentionally let the smaller things go. That includes email — lots and lots of email.

For the past two or three weeks, I have fallen into the habit of skimming my email for important messages from members of my team, students, people I work with directly and anyone seeking my assistance directly. I haven’t been reading vendor emails, webinar invites, project summary updates, publisher advertisements and TOC updates. I have been letting these emails stack up, unread in my already full inbox.

It all finally caught up with me.

Last week I was checking my email while at a conference. A friend leaned over my shoulder, noticed the 687 unread emails badge on my email folder and said, “Dude, you have over 600 unread email messages! That’s awesome!”

I didn’t feel awesome. I felt embarrassed. I felt tired. I felt a bit angry. So, I made a promise. No more stacking up unnecessary emails. I aspire to keep a clean email inbox. All the productivity literature advises the following on incoming emails: Deal with it; Delegate it; Delete it.

Easy, right? Not quite.

First, I had to deal with the rat’s nest that my inbox had become. So I did a bit of triage. I cordoned off my inbox. Everything older than April got shipped into  a separate folder to be dealt with later. To start, I would only deal with the current month. The goal is to winnow down my emails from the current month until I am left with a clean inbox to work from. I still have about 70 emails that need to be dealt with, filed or forgotten. I have only 4 unread messages at the moment.

I’m a piler. My office is the same. I have stacks of mid-level importance stuff piled up on my desk waiting patiently for my attention. Since I can’t pile emails, I flag them. My Outlook inbox is a parade of flags billowing patiently, waiting for me to deal with, delegate or delete. Some of the emails require a conversation. Some require recording some information someone else. Several require reading. Many are diverse threads of a single conversation.

I’m working through my rules. I need to be ruthless in my discipline. I want to be merciless in my digital housekeeping.

The trouble is they keep rolling in. Yesterday I received 57 new emails and sent 25. Today I received 67 and sent 27. This is a pretty light week, so far.

Please help. I am under attack. This is a full-scale assault.

Emails are a messages in bottles. I am the man on the beach. I keep throwing the bottles back out to sea but they keep washing up on me.

Here are my new rules for merciless email management:

  • Don’t flag emails for later reading. If they are articles, read them now or push them to Instapaper for easier offline reading.
  • Delete all previous emails from a threaded conversation. Keep only the most recent.
  • Don’t save emails to which I have replied. I can find the email later in my sent messages file.
  • Keep emails short, focused, to the point.
  • Don’t read emails that waste my time.
  • Don’t read emails that require me to open an attachment to understand what they are about.
  • Don’t email drafts of documents to others for editing. Use Google Docs.
  • Move emails that require a scheduled event directly to the calendar for safe keeping.
  • Unsubscribe to anything that does not immediately benefit me.

This will be an ongoing campaign, I’m sure. I want to keep a clean inbox. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What rules work well for you in keeping email under control?