Wednesday, October 31, 2007

inbox zero

This morning I did not even bother to clock into Fogbugz because, I forget, anyway it suddenly occurred to me that I had not checked out the Juice Analytics blog for a long time. So I checked out the blog and the most recent entry was a set of tips for a maps mashup, with a link to another maps mashup, both of which I have passed on to Hassan who is jobhunting so probably has no time (but looking at the tips I thought I might be able to tackle this myself if the world of gainful employment claims HA). In the sidebar was a link to Michael Lavine's free e-book Introduction to Statistical Thought with examples using R (it has been out since December 2006, so I'm a bit late, but it looks great and this is really not too bad). There was also a link to a video, Inbox Zero, a talk given by Merlin Mann to Google. I do think I need to do something about Inbox management, but this has to be the worst advice I have ever seen - bad advice for anyone with an Inbox, and exceptionally stupid given the audience (who are, at the risk of stating the obvious, exceptionally smart people). I give you the link so you can judge for yourselves if you want to:

Inbox Zero

Mann's advice amounts to this: you should try to check e-mail less often (turn off Autocheck if you have it (I don't), try to keep checking down to once an hour), and act on all incoming e-mail as soon as you check it, with one of the following responses:

Delete (includes Archive)
Respond (preferably with a maximum of 5 sentences)
Do (take an action that solves the problem)

All these responses, as I say, should be done immediately so that the Inbox is not used as a To Do list.

Now, Mann does not talk about the problem of a Drafts folder whose contents are up in the triple digits, and you might think someone whose Drafts folder is overflowing is even worse than someone with an Inbox that's overflowing. That's not really true.

As any fule kno, Google has a policy of allowing its very smart staff to spend 20% of their time on a personal project. What this means, of course, is that each member of staff is spending 20% of his or her time on a cool project which he or she hopes ONE day to be spending 100% of his or her time on - a cool project that will take off. But if you work on something new you often have to get advice or information from other people - and each time you have some new brilliant idea the temptation is to fire off an e-mail to someone who might have the answer.

This is ordinary practice even for someone like me, who works independently. You surf around online, you discover the existence of someone you don't know from a bar of soap who would naturally be only too THRILLED to help, dash off a quick e-mail or maybe just capture the e-mail address for future use... If you're at Google, though, this element of working on a project is also (I assume) a way of persuading other people that the project is cool, getting other people excited about it so that it stands a better chance of being adopted by Google. Well, obviously, if EVERYONE at Google is spending 20% of their time on a pet project they think incredibly cool, the potential for everyone to be buried under an avalanche of e-mails is very high - and that's before you take into account the 80% of time that's spent on Google-approved projects.

What this means is that one very good way to keep the general volume of e-mail down is for people to be much more ruthless, not with the e-mails that come in, but with those that go out. You have a brilliant idea, you want quick answers, you dash off an e-mail - and put it in the Drafts folder. Sometimes the answer to the question turns up in a few days or a week. Sometimes you go back to the e-mail which is full of last week's brilliant idea and meanwhile you have moved on to another brilliant idea. If you have a lot of these ideas you will end up with a Drafts folder with 177 e-mails, but you have kept them out of someone else's Inbox. You can be selective about the people you do write to, you can think through your questions properly, you can provide whatever information is necessary so people can answer once rather than engage in e-mail ping pong.

Mann thought one way to keep volume down was to write brief replies. Someone sends me a 25-paragraph e-mail, I can't write a 25-paragraph reply... This is actually silly. If a point or question can be made briefly then of course there is no virtue in length. If an issue is complex, though, if several options must be considered, each with different implications, it is more helpful to have everything set out in a single message. Each paragraph should not need a paragraph in reply; a good reply will respond point by point, with perhaps a sentence or two per paragraph, interpolated into the original text. You then have all relevant information and responses in a single document, which is much easier to consult if you have to go back to it in 6 months than a series of e-mails with the same title prefaced by Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

There are people who can't cope with anything more complicated than an exam with T/F and multiple choice questions. It's very hard to do business with that kind of person, because you have to boil everything down to the type of question that has simple answers. Things go horribly wrong because you can't discuss problems at the level of complexity required. I find that as a writer of fiction; it strikes me as unlikely that high-powered software developers have simpler problems than mine.

At the beginning of his talk Mann said one should look at how one spends one's time and think about how well it matches the priorities one claims to hold. One might claim, he said, that family and religion mattered most; if those were one's priorities, were they reflected in the distribution of e-mails? The time spent on e-mails rather than other things? Again, this was someone who had not bothered to spend three seconds thinking about what Google claims to be about.

We may certainly feel that the way Google handled its dealings with China is at odds with the moral position it claims to hold. It's still not unreasonable to think that many people working there think they can come up with ideas whose implementation will make the world a better place. They don't necessarily put religion high (maybe anywhere) on their list of priorities, but they might put making the world a better place high on the list; quite a lot of them might subscribe to the hacker principle, for instance, that the world would be a better place if good solutions to problems only had to be discovered once for everyone to have access to them. It's not clear that the distribution of e-mails in Inboxes (assuming a good spam filter) would be wildly out of sync with this; the challenge would be to make this form of communication more effective in promoting goals it to some extent already serves.

I don't know whether there is a one-size-fits-all system for managing e-mails. I don't know whether the recommended system would be more helpful in a workplace where life was what happened outside office hours. It was interesting to see what a bad fit was achieved under the assumption that this was the only possible type of workplace.


pm215 said...

The concept of declaring 'email bankruptcy' beats this in the 'worst advice' stakes, IMHO...

I think the general principles behind the whole 'Inbox Zero' concept are more interesting than the specific idea. (The principles, of course, are really the whole Getting Things Done system as applied to email.) Personally I've never had a problem with the size of my inbox (currently 6000+ items) because I never ever look at anything except the last few on the list, so it matters not to me whether there are 6 or 6006 things in the list. (This is partly a matter of mail client user interface specifics as well.)

I suppose the problem Merlin's trying to fix is where you continually find yourself rereading the same emails again and again to try to work out what you're going to do: solution, roughly: separate the reference stuff (archive) from the useless junk (delete) from the things you need to do (a todo list in some other medium). If that's not the problem you have with your inbox, then it's probably not the right solution :-)

As for drafts, my guess is that he'd recommend something along the lines of going through the drafts folder every week and either: (a) delete (this draft has become irrelevant and I'm never going to send it) (b) archive (I'm never going to send this but perhaps there was an interesting idea in there I might refer to later on) (c) send (d) defer a decision on this draft until later (and try not to just let everything fall into category (d)!)

hassan said...

The world of gainful employment. The world of

See, I don't want to start crying on my keyboard. That'll be just.... But wait, maybe if we sat back a little. *Scoots back* Ah, there we go.

Actually, in truth I'm being somewhat melodramatic. The search isn't horrible, but well, it is what it is. Although today I had a really interesting chat with this lady I was interviewing with. She shared this incredible story involving herself, a super-secret club in Manhattan disguised as a nondescript flat within a complex, and one A--- [very famous NY mafia family name]. Oh, and some homemade cigarettes. Extraordinary. Best cocktail story I've ever heard, and given the life I've led and the company I've kept, that's no idle boast.

But yeah, sorry I'm being so lame with the secondhand thing. Race you to the finish if you've already started on it?