The Noisy Channel

 

Overwhelmed by Email?

December 6th, 2008 · 17 Comments · General

Normally, I don’t post about press releases that people email me. But in this case, the title, “Half of Americans Are Overwhelmed by E-Mail“, hit far too close to home. Having spent the day catching up on a week of email, I’m feeling more than a little overwhelmed. And it’s made me think hard about imposing more discipline on how I manage email. 

I’m in no immediate danger of declaring email bankruptcy, but I have reached a point where my ad hoc approach to managing email–particularly to checking email as it arrives–costs me so much in productivity that I am considering reducing the frequency with which I check email to once or twice a day.

One might ask if there’s anything unique about email as a source of context switching. Don’t the same issues apply to news feeds, Twitter, etc? And there’s instant messenger–which is intended to trigger an immediate context switch. Why single out email?

My suspicion is that email satisfies an unholy mix of properties:

  • A substantial fraction of email is personal and important, and there are no reliable automatic ways of identifying this fraction.
     
  • The sender’s expectation of how long to wait for a response varies widely–from as soon as possible (e.g., one-line bodyless emails used as instant messages) to days or even indefinite (e.g., an FYI email that does not require a response).
     
  • The typical sender sees email as the least invasive way to communicate, and therefore uses it as the default means of doing so.

The result: you (or at least I) end up with a relentless queue of email, faced with a choice of looking at all of it frequently, or likely deferring something urgent.

Of course, there are conventions, like marking emails as urgent, that are intended to sort out some of the above. But it isn’t realistic to expect everyone to use these consistently, at least not this late in the game.

Perhaps the answer is, as was suggested in an earlier post, to make it public. Specifically, Tantek suggests to “Move as much 1:1 communication into 1:many or 1:all mediums.” At some level, that is counterintuitive–after all, doesn’t that just make my problem everyone’s problem? But the key is that public communication sets different expectations. I might know the answer to your question, but so might any number of other people, so let’s balance the load.

It’s a nice idea, though it’s not clear how anarchic 1:many and 1:all mediums can accomplish this load balancing efficiently. But arguably that just an implementation detail. The first step is to calibrate the specificity of distribution to the specificity of the information / communication need.

Where does this leave me and others who are overwhelmed by email? For now, stuck with heuristics like disciplined management. For the long haul, advocating for more scalable social norms.

p.s. Ironically, this post is a public response to a private email.

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Christopher // Dec 7, 2008 at 1:16 am

    Hi Daniel,

    Welcome back, hope you had a relaxing vacation.

    What you are describing here is really an issue no matter what method of direct communication we use & will become a problem even in more social methods of communication if we do not stop worrying as much about “information overload” and start worrying about how filtering & routing of communications have not kept up with other innovations in the IR/IE space.

    There will always be outliers (but they can be let through as a general rule) but I think what is really needed is better automated filtering, routing & clustering for communications style data; without it this morass of data will never be easily turned into information.

    Christopher

    P.S. Disclosure: I have a certain interest in the area of communications filtering (Hint to what is coming) so I am a little biased in my views of how we handle this type of stuff.

  • 2 Christopher // Dec 7, 2008 at 2:08 am

    Follow-Up,

    Facetted Search I think can really lead the way architecturally (Big Picture).

    Somethings are obviously different but the base concept of faceted filters in IR points the way towards how these new filters (for messaging data) could be envisioned.

  • 3 Daniel Tunkelang // Dec 7, 2008 at 7:27 am

    I agree that we need better filtering and routing tools. But if I want transparency in my relevance ranking algorithms, I demand it in my filtering and routing tools. I have a hard enough time accepting black-box spam filtering, though in that case I have no practical alternative. And, in fact, I was lucky to rescue an important email from my spam folder quite recently.

    I’m personally a fan of attention bond approaches, but they’ve never taken off.

    http://icd.si.umich.edu/twiki/pub/ICD/EmailMarkets/loder-vanalstyne-walshABM-BE-JEAP-final.pdf

    http://www.si.umich.edu/stietold/posters/spam-igert-poster.pdf

  • 4 Christopher // Dec 7, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Agreed,

    While some of the underlying algorithms are black box like in nature how we interact with them need not be. A good filtering system allows for a “conversation” with the data as everyones needs are different.

    What you’re doing is slicing and dicing incoming data based on rules you create while interacting with the software. Nothing should be a surprise (i.e. why is this message here and not here.).

    Also just like in facetted browsing a message can be in more than one filter view.

    It’s a challenge but I think even a fully transparent, conversational filtering system can have some stellar benefits.

  • 5 Max L. Wilson // Dec 8, 2008 at 5:12 am

    this is a fascinating thing. There have been studies, not that i have them to hand, USCD I think, that have tracked the windows that people had open on their computer for a large period, and showed that people were working on their emails double or more than the time they THOUGHT they were. so you think you are spending a lot of time on it… its probably twice that!

    my supervisor tried the once a day email thing. i dont think she still does it. It certainly did have an affect on how she processed and even received emails. Most of the members of her team saved emails up till half an hour before her daily email reading time and sent them all at once. if you didnt get them in before 11, then you’d miss her for 24 hours! disaster. The system also failed when any of us were at a paper deadline or something, when we’d have input once a day. its not conducive to responding quickly to business.

    instead what I’ve heard is a pretty good solution is the ‘i’ll do it tomorrow’ policy. rather than reacting and responding to emails quickly (unless really urgent), they get slotted into proper schedule on the next day. rather than affecting your schedule on the current day. again, im not sure how good this is for people who depend on email communication like many software companies.

    i think also quitting your email application rather than switching/minimising helps me. that way i dont get the notification popping up (on a mac anyway) until i next choose to check my email. but i definately do that more than once or twice a day.

    very interesting.

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // Dec 8, 2008 at 10:25 am

    I’m hardly surprised by that study; small interrupts add up, and our brains are bad at tracking that sort of arithmetic. And of course there’s overhead for the context switches themselves.

    I’m actually pretty good at prioritizing email once I read it; it’s the interrupts that kill me. So I’ve decided to take an approach of only committing to checking email once a day, without specifying when. In other words, I set the expectation that I will see an email within 24 hours of receiving it. For more urgent communication, I am telling people to use IM, SMS, and phone. I’m counting on people to exercise good judgment; if that fails, I’ll go back to the drawing board.

    Will I be able to only check email once a day? Probably not at first–it’s a drastic change for me. But at least I’ll keep my email clients closed. And I’ve already modified my BlackBerry settings to only alert me (audibly and visually) for SMS and phone communications.

  • 7 Rob // Dec 8, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Getting Things Done has a method for processing an Inbox that I believe works really well. Basically, treat your Inbox as an Inbox, not as a bucket of things to be dealt with some time. Create two other folders: Action and Waiting, the first that contains things requiring action on your part, such as a response, and the second containing items for which you are waiting for someone else to take an action.

    When you Process your Inbox, you deal with every item that takes 1-2 minutes to deal with (e.g. can be deleted, filed, responded to quickly, etc.). The ones that will take longer you put into Action. The point of Processing is to completely empty your Inbox.

    You only really need to do this once a day or so, and it helps avoid the, “I’m just going to check my email again,” syndrome. When you have more time, you can knock a couple of the Action items out.

    There’s a bit more to it, but I’ve found it extremely useful in my email habits.

  • 8 Christopher // Dec 8, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    I still think the trick is a combination of:
    Scheduling a time(s) to read general email as you are doing PLUS a system that lets certain “classes” of email & social messages (from sites like twitter) through AS WELL AS “moving” certain messages into “open messaging frameworks” like a wiki which many people can then attack.

    I’ll be able to explain what I mean by all this more soon, really. I still have not had time to right up a project description for you (and a few others); the project is much more than this but takes into account the above, remember I am trying to replace your BlackBerry with an iPhone. ;)

    So little time so much to do. ;)

    Christopher

  • 9 Dave Fauth // Dec 11, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Daniel,

    What’s your Twitter strategy and your blog comments strategy? Same as email?

  • 10 Dave Fauth // Dec 11, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    How many email accts do you have and do they all go to one inbox? I have at least 5 active that I interact with daily and they all must be seperate.

    Are you using the same strategy with multiple email addresses?

  • 11 Daniel Tunkelang // Dec 11, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Twitter: RSS feed for key terms, email for direct messages (I might replace that with SMS), and ad hoc for the messages of people I follow. The reality is that I can’t read all the updates from 300+ people. I should probably reduce that number, but I haven’t figured out a principled way to do that yet.

    Blog Comments: comments on my own blog go to my personal email. Ad hoc for following comments on other blogs (e.g., follow-ups when I comment).

    Email: 2 accounts, one for work, one personal. I keep them in separate inboxes. While I’m using the same overall strategy with both, I do prioritize work over personal, e.g., my BlackBerry display shows me only how many unread work emails I have, but I have to put in more effort to see my unread personal mail.

  • 12 Otis Gospodnetic // Dec 11, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    Daniel – you know, the only real solution is to unsubscribe, unplug. Everything else is, I think, just pretending.

  • 13 Ricardo Niederberger Cabral // Dec 14, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Regarding your P.S. note: It’s not as ironic as the person who probably used email to ask you how you handle email overload :)

  • 14 Daniel Tunkelang // Dec 14, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    Ricardo: that would be ironic. But what she did was email me a press release in the hope that I’d blog about it. I suspect she got more than she bargained for. :)

  • 15 You Can’t Hurry Relevance // Feb 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    […] of us is the frequency with which email causes us to interrupt our workflow. Knowing this, I made a brief attempt in 2008 to check email only once a day. Unfortunately, this approach would have violated too many […]

  • 16 Claire // Mar 15, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Recently, I’ve been talking to a bunch of people about how they deal with email–read it as it comes in, file vs pile, mobile response vs desktop response. Everyone has somewhat different strategies, but the commonality is they all view email as the original and sometimes the only to-do list. We’re working on an intelligent sorting system for email right now–if you want details, feel free to email me!

  • 17 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 15, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    Claire, thanks for the comment. Certainly curious to see what you and the Riparian crew come up with.

    Also see my more recent post: http://thenoisychannel.com/2010/02/28/you-cant-hurry-relevance/

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