LiveLab 02 – Defining an Email Health Calculator

How would you define the state of your email inbox? What would it be like to have an indicator of its current condition? With it, you could decide how to intervene.

Today, most of us use a crude metric – the total number of unread messages. But is that good enough?

Here at 2Time Labs, I have always thought there should be a more refined method. But I only started to develop one by including a few lines in an overall productivity diagnostic tool.

That initial attempt was turned into a first draft, which was the trigger for me to make a call to Dr. Michael Einstein, an email expert.

Eventually, we recorded a set of conversations which were edited down to three episodes (57-59) of the 2Time Labs podcast.

These were quite challenging, involving and number or formulae, plus a slew of assumptions about email management.

Here is the first episode in the series. In each episode, I documented the progress we were making on the index in the show notes. Of course, you can just skip to the end-result but how much fun would that be?

I encourage you to leave your feedback on the episode’s page itself.


How New Managers Prevent Email Overwhelm

This article was originally printed in the Jamaica Gleaner as one of my columns.

When the excitement of a promotion wears off, newly elevated managers sometimes struggle. Often, they blame their new responsibilities, but this limited view dooms them to failure. Instead, success comes from expanding specific skills which were once suitable but are now inadequate.

Email is a case in point. All of a sudden, as a newly promoted manager, you need to stay late or work on weekends just to keep up with a mountain of discussion threads. When you don’t stay on top of them all, your competence and readiness are quietly questioned.

Given the fact that email takes up 20% of the average manager’s day, the sad truth is that you weren’t trained to analyse your email practices with a view to making improvements. Today, the prevailing notion is that you can learn just as fast as Millennials. They change apps faster than they change their clothing.

However, even these twenty-somethings struggle when they experience a boom in email volume. Like everyone else, they blame their circumstances, a grave mistake.

It leads companies to launch projects to cut the number of messages people are receiving. Unfortunately, this rarely makes a difference as two recent, counter-intuitive studies explain: overwhelm isn’t caused by the number of messages we receive.

The first research, by Mary Czerwinski and her team at Microsoft show that the more time you spend checking messages, the less productive and more stressed you feel. Some firms have noticed this effect, leading them to curtail email in favour of other channels such as Instant Messaging or Whatsapp.

The second study shows why these efforts are in vain.

A paper by Victoria Bellotti and her XEROX research colleagues shows that it’s not the volume of email that makes us anxious and ineffective, but the number of unresolved tasks that are buried in these messages.  For example, if you routinely receive 1000 messages per day and a high percentage are newsletters or spam which require no action on your part, your peace of mind isn’t affected. On the other hand, if you receive five high-impact emails per day which spur 30 new tasks, you are more likely to feel pressured.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the Zeigarnik Effect: the mental weight of these incomplete tasks. You can’t complete them all at once – that would be impossible to do as a newly promoted manager. Instead, you must manage them effectively, thereby relieving your subconscious mind of its role as Reminder-in-Chief, disrupting sleep, conversations, and quiet moments of prayer or meditation.

How do you take care of these unwanted disruptions, keep your peace of mind and avoid overwhelm in your new position?

1. Handle email in an all-out sprint

In this paradigm, you must think of email differently. Instead of fitting it in between meetings or other activities at your leisure, do the opposite. Schedule two or three times each day to get through your Inbox as fast as possible in standalone, focused efforts. These sprints need total concentration. Execute them ruthlessly, punting protracted responses until later – you are in “emptying mode”, not “execution mode”.

This is also no space for distractions. Cut them all out and ignore the smartphone. Treat this time slot as the single most important recurring activity you perform each day that should only be interrupted if there’s a bonafide emergency.

2. Get your own training

Unfortunately, few Human Resource departments are bastions of high tech efficiency. Most have little to do with employee productivity in its modern sense and therefore don’t offer new managers the kind of training required to manage email overwhelm.

On your own, cobble together the fresh skills you need, using a combination of resources such my past columns.

3. Manage other people’s deliverables as your own

Complicated email threads involving several people, plus weeks of going back and forth, reveal that you are totally dependent on others to do their part. Unfortunately, some of them can’t be trusted.

While most new managers continue to store email in their Inbox, highlighting important ones for later, you shouldn’t. Eventually, you will be buried by unresolved tasks which require a follow-up, but get lost in these threads.

Instead, you must strip out these tasks and manage them elsewhere. This usually means picking up a task management software and learning the self-taught behaviours required to make them work.

The good news is that if you follow these prescriptions, your subconscious mind may reward you. Its endless pinging should stop and overwhelm will disappear.

But be vigilant: your next promotion may cause you to revisit all your methods just to maintain your peace of mind. Consider it to be the price of success in the modern workplace.

Here is the link to the original article.

An email app that could thwart “Time Grabbers”

Time grabbers 1One of the frequent complaints I hear about corporate life is the time wasted in two activities you cannot quite ignore without incurring a social cost: email and meetings. In this article, I suggest that there should be an email app that gives immediate feedback to a sender, and argue that companies are not doing enough today to limit the prevailing waste and stress.

Read this unusual post – it’s the first part in a two part series – that starts by looking at programs and apps that could make a difference if they existed. They tell us much about how we can make things better today.

I am testing the Medium platform for the second or third time, so I posted this article here.

Email’s Impact on Our Stress Levels

I found an interesting article that gives an early peek at the impact that email is having on our stress levels.

The article entitled Email raises stress levels gives an early peek at some intriguing research being conducted at Loughborough University by Professor Tom Jackson and his team.  In a nutshell, it reveals that reading and sending email increases stress, and that it peaks at the times of day when people’s inboxes were the fullest.

Also, email “which arrived in response to completed work had a calming effect,” which appears to back up research conducted by Masicampo and Baumeister and M. Zeigarnik around the effect of completed or well-managed tasks.

I’m going to try to get a hold of the original research, just because it appears to be so promising. In particular, I suspect that email by itself has little effect, but the time demands that email triggers… well, that’s where it all starts.

Take a look at the article and stay tuned to this space for more insights if I am able to learn some more about these early findings.


Time Demand: A Confusing Definition Cleared Up

In different posts here on 2Time, I have defined time demands as commitments that we create to complete actions in the future.

They are created by the individual in his/her own mind.  While they are essentially inventions of the mind, they do accumulate in one’s memory, and they disappear or cease to exist once the action has been completed.

That definition seems simple enough, and I use it when I’m teaching a class to illustrate this important concept.  A simple example would be watching a television commercial that advertises a discount at your favorite restaurant.  You decide to visit before the offer expires, and immediately write down the day and time that you are thinking of visiting.

Where I’m a bit confused at the moment is what happens in the electronic world.

Does a time demand get created when you receive an email in your Inbox (without being aware of it) or when you glance at it for the first time and form an impression that there is something for you to do about it, or with it?

Is the fact that you have an email Inbox an open invitation to receive time demands?  Is every message therefore a time demand?

The answer to that seems to be “no.”  Just because someone sends you email doesn’t mean that it’s a time demand of any kind, any more than junk mail in your P.O. Box is a time demand.  Or a piece of paper that randomly blows into your yard, or an instruction shouted in your direction in a crowded subway.

Information in an email, or on paper, or in the sound waves only become a time demand when they are converted from words by a live recipient.  An instruction shouted at a group of people, for example, would only be a time demand for a few.

This might clear up some of my confusion when it comes to email.  I can see that email sent to you isn’t a time demand until you have read it.  The problem that many have is that they skim rather than empty their email Inboxes, especially when they don’t know what to do with an item once they have determined that it includes valid time demands.

However, does the fact that you have an email Inbox mean that you are inviting potential time demands, and therefore committing to process messages from everyone who send you  email?

I say not.  But I could be wrong.  Legally, a piece of mail that gets sent via registered mail must be accepted by a live person who accepts responsibility for it.  That’s not what happens with email.

There is no way to legally guarantee anything via email, even if the the sender hits the right buttons.

Someone who decides to set up an email Inbox and never checks it isn’t breaking the law by any means.  However, they are displaying White belt behaviors, and possibly allowing time demands to fall through the cracks.

I’d got a bit further and say that anyone with an email Inbox that’s used by the public is wise to treat any piece of email as a time demand in and of itself, whether or not it includes anything useful.  You are committing to spend even a fraction of a second reading, making a  decision and disposing of the message. This is true even for Spam that warrants a peek before permanent deletion.

Those fractions add up, of course, which is why many fear a buildup of email from being on vacation.

So, the best practice I’d suggest is to treat each piece of email as a time demand before it’s read, with the understanding that it might lead to even further time demands.

Does Email Volume Hit a Natural Limit?

While there are lots of people who complain about receiving too many emails per day, the complaint that “I get too much email” is a bit of a red herring.

While there is a certain amount of email that is written with poor quality (sometimes as high as 65% according to research by Burgess, Jackson and Ewards;  Email Overload: Tolerance Levels of Employees within the Workplace,) and a further amount is simply SPAM, there is a critical percentage of email that involves communication required to perform one’s job, career and profession.

In other words, it’s not an extra chore, it’s the very essence of the job of a knowledge worker: to craft skillful communication, manage time demands and make critical decisions that move projects to completion.  If there were no email, the communication would still have to be realized, albeit at a slower pace.

What does a professional have to complain about when it comes to email volumes?  If they are part and parcel of the job, then each valid message is to be expected and should be welcomed as it shows that necessary communication is taking place, as it should.  Email is an excellent medium for most kinds of communication, and cannot be effectively replaced by paper memos or face to face meetings.

It should be expected that with a promotion, a new project or an expansion in one’s accountabilities that email volume will increase.   Each step up in one’s career requires further communication, not less, and also greater skill.

The question is whether or not there is a “natural” amount of email communication that is inherent in a particular role.  Does it increase to a certain level, and then level off?  Or, should we expect one’s email to increase, and to keep growing without any logical limit.

I can’t claim to have answers to these questions, but my intuition tells me that there’s a natural increase in daily messages that takes place from one job to the next.  While we don’t know how to measure the difference, or predict it, it seems reasonable to assume that it does exist.

If it does, then there’s some comfort in knowing that email doesn’t come out of nowhere.  Instead, each and every valid message appears in your Inbox because you are doing your job well.  It needs to be embraced, and managed — even if it requires a user to performance an upgrade to his/her skills.

Certainly, blaming the new job or one’s colleagues is not an empowering stance to take.

1999 Email Research is Still Timely and Relevant

As I dug through academic papers on the topic of time management over the past few days, I came across a journal article that was simply amazing in its prescience.  It was written by Steve Whittaker and Candace Sidner of Lotus Development Corp (now part of IBM.) It was published in 1996, and they also happen to be the authors who coined the term “email overload.”

In their paper entitled “Email overload: exploring personal information management of email” they quite rightly take note of the fact that professionals around the world are using email Inboxes to manage what their tasks: what we at 2Time call “time demands.”  They start off the article with a major assertion in their Abstract:

Email is one of the most successful computer applications yet
devised. Our empirical data show however, that although email was originally designed as a communications application, it is now being used for additional functions, that it was not designed for, such as task management and  personal archiving . We call this  email overload. We demonstrate that email overload creates problems for personal information management: users often have cluttered inboxes containing hundreds of messages, including outstanding tasks, partially read documents and conversational threads.  Furthermore, user attempts to rationalise their inboxes by filing are often unsuccessful, with the consequence that important messages get overlooked, or “lost” in archives. We explain how  email overloading arises and propose technical solutions to the problem.

What is amazing to me is not the point they are making, as it’s one that’s been echoed here at 2Time many times, especially in my posts suggesting ways to improve Outlook.  Instead, what’s startling is that no-one seems to have paid any attention.

Not only have Outlook and other email management programmes failed to offer anything new, Gmail didn’t even exist at the time this article was written, and it committed the same design mistake by not recognizing that existing email management software isn’t fashioned around its most common use — task and time management.

As I have mentioned before, there is lots of room for someone to create a breakthrough software product that changes a users relationship to to the tasks that come at them each day — many of which come at them via email.

This article certainly points solidly in that direction, as does my own research and intuition.  let’s see who gets there first!

Turning Off Email Downloads

This is an article written three whole years ago (such a LONG time) that advocates turning off email downloads to your smartphone:  Ten reasons to turn off email notifications to your phone.

It makes a great case for processing email in batches, rather than continuously, which is a better way to achieve the Zero Inbox.

I’m a lucky one, I think, in this respect. By writing about the process I was following to select a smartphone, I became determined to follow the habits he describes before I got my Blackberry.  I have been able to maintain a certain discipline about checking email, and rarely find myself doing so when I don’t have time to process all my messages.

My plan is simple:  if I find myself checking email at inappropriate times, I plan to do exactly what the author of the article auggest in order to prevent a bad habit from ever taking root.

One thing I have noticed is how many messages I delete right off the bat, which makes me realize that I need to unsubscribe from a bunch of newsletters and notifications that I don’t really read.

It’s a useful article — hard to believe it’s three years old given it’s relevance today.

Someone Struggling with Zero Inbox

This is an interesting post from the third day of someone’s attempt to maintain a Zero Inbox.

It’s quite a diligent effort, and I admire his use of tracking statistics to get some insights into what’s going on with all the email messages received in a day.  It’s interesting that so few replies are generated, and so many are simply deleted.

I keep wishing that someone will create software to track these kinds of statistics, perhaps via add-ons in Outlook or Gmail.  They’d surely give us more information on our habit patterns than we have now.

The article is entitled: “Day 3 Inbox Zero”