Tag: email

Batching email by people and therefore by project – a workflow to solve the email jigsaw puzzle problem

 

I’m constantly fighting to keep track of the time I’m spending on various projects. I want to spend enough time that they keep moving forward, but I don’t want to spend too much time so that other projects begin to suffer. To be able to effectively forecast how much time I need to allocate to a project or task, I need good data that I can extrapolate from. My latest attempt at tracking my time involves using an app on my mac called Timing.  Mostly it does a good job of tracking where I spend my time and it is reasonably easy to allocate time to particular projects once they are all set up. However, I am conscious that a non-trivial amount of my time is spent inside email and this time is not captured against specific projects. To get around this, I have begun sorting my email by sender and batch processing email.

The email jigsaw puzzle

I think of my email inbox kinda like a large box with lots of little jigsaw pieces in it. The problem is that I’m working on more than one jigsaw puzzle (project) at a time. Every day more and more jigsaw pieces get added to the box, but they are not added in a manner that makes to easy for me to work on one puzzle at a time. The result is that my attention becomes fragmented and the cognitive load increases as I try and bounce from one project to the next.

To get around this, I began to think of my email inbound process, not as a temporal flow of unconnected jigsaw pieces, but as to who was bringing those pieces to my inbox. Usually, people are attached to projects so instead of working my way down through a list of email each of which is likely to be unconnected to the email below it, I sort my email by sender and then batch process all the email from that particular person at the same time. The advantage of this is that when it comes time to review my day, I can quickly allocate chunks of time that I spent on my email to particular projects even though I was working on multiple emails. In this way, the invisible work of email management becomes accountable and I am able to get a more accurate view of how much a particular project is actually costing me in terms of time.

Now that I can visualise the actual time cost of email against specific projects, I can make better judgments about costing my time in the future. This is better for me, but also for others who I am working with. The best bit? If anybody asks, I can justify my time spend.

Below is a review of the Timing app should you be interested.

While you were away…

You deserve a break. A real break. Go on leave for a bit. The words can wait.” – Well-meaning supervisor.

So I did. I took time off. Stopped writing and everything. Sure, I knew I had to come back to the words later, but I could defer them a little bit. It’d be ok. And it was. I was on track and had some time up my sleeve before my completion date loomed. I had flexibility.

Flash-forward a couple of years; post PhD.

God. You look knackered. You need a break.” – Well-meaning colleague.

“Yep.” – me.

And so for the last little bit I have been in Far North Queensland attempting to catch some fish and commune with nature in the Daintree Rainforest World Heritage Listed Area. With the exception of some spectacularly bad luck with the fishing, it’s been great. I am beginning to feel relaxed. ‘Work’ is fading into the background.

Except, it’s not.

It’s always there, you know? Just in the background. A vague awareness that the emails are piling up and that when I get back I’m going to have to catch up on what I missed. Gah.

It’ll probably take a week, maybe more, this catching up busyness, as I deal with well over a few hundred emails and all the new work that continues to pour in. For a week or so I’ll be in the electronic salt mines trying to piece together what happened and what I should do about it (if anything). And there’s the rub; even if the email doesn’t require action, I still need to read it to know that I never needed to read it in the first place. Catch–22. Gotchya.

So this got me thinking; thinking about the role that email plays in our lives and the power we give it over our thoughts and actions. It doesn’t really matter how you define ‘work’, whether it is working on your thesis or grading papers or whatever it is that you do for most of your waking hours, the fact seems to be that no matter how efficient we are, no matter how many systems we put in place to stem the tide, that there is always more to do.

For me, work seems to mostly arrive by email. Student requests (usually poorly structured and astonishingly short on context), meeting requests (often making the student emails look positively expansive by contrast), FYIs from colleagues (who, apparently, have so little understanding of what I do that they tell me things I just don’t need to know about), and occasionally something important that absolutely, positively demands my attention right then and there. Even when I was PhD student, I had to deal with emails from supervisors, administrators and various others. Email become one of the main ways in which things got done and expectations got managed.

How did we get to the point where email = expectations? How did we get to the point where managing your email = managing others’ expectations? What can be done about it?

And as I sit here in FNQ thinking about this, I realise that I thought I had an effective mechanism in place to manage others’ expectations – the out of office reply on my email. I’ve been thinking that because I had crafted a polite (and not even a little bit passive-aggressive) OOOR that I had bought myself some time. Some time that I can spend doing what I wanted. Like fishing. I’ve been thinking to myself:

“Work. It can wait.”

But it can’t, you see. The OOOR hasn’t so much bought me some time as borrowed it. I still have to pay it back (with interest). The work still needs to get done. It is expected.

Now I’m not pointing fingers at my current workplace – it doesn’t matter who I talk to or from which industry they come, the story is the same – there is a growing (set?) expectation that once someone has sent an email, that their bit is done.

“I sent you an email about this…”

Take for example the recent industrial furore over the shipbuilders who were told – via email – not to turn up to work for their next shift. Since when has email become so core to the way in which we transact work that it is ok to sack people[1] through it?

And so we get closer to the the real problem: email, for all its reply functionality, doesn’t work well when people stop attending to it. In fact, the OOOR does the exact opposite of what it was intended for: it gives comfort to the sender that the email has been received (and so from their point of view: “job done”), but it leaves the responsibility of replying firmly in the recipient’s email court. All those poorly written, half thought-through emails remain in the inbox, waiting for something appropriate to happen to them, something like me working overtime to catch up on what I missed.

The net effect:

I didn’t really get to go on leave. Deep down, I am still at work. Psychologically, I don’t get to have a break. The point of having break to refresh my capacity to do better work is diminished, lost.

So what can be done?

The solution to this problem is not a technological one, but a behavioural one. To truly be able to take advantage of ‘time off’, we need to know that we can come back to our work rested and ready to tackle the work that is coming towards us, not kill ourselves by trying to “catch up.” We need to begin to pay attention to the ‘socio’ part of this socio-technical system we call email/expectations. For that is all it is, a system. A system that we can change, if we choose to.

My solution to this problem is a two-step approach[2].

  • Step 1: When I get back to work, create a special folder in my email client called: While you were away… and then move every email that is in my inbox into that folder. Studiously ignore it from that point on.
  • Step 2: Begin to let people know that I have archived all email that arrived during the period that I was away and will be working from a clean slate. If there they sent anything that they think absolutely needs my attention then they need to let me know. Otherwise, I’ll assume that it’s ok for me to safely ignore. I was, after all, on leave.

I’m willing to bet that very few people will actually re-send those ‘important’ emails or that I’ve missed anything so mission-critical that someone else hasn’t covered for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Right now, though, I’m off to another World Heritage Listed Area – Mossman Gorge – to soak up the bliss and I promise you I won’t be thinking about work at all.

Maybe you should have a break too? You know, a real break? It’ll do you, and your work, good.


  1. I’m aware that this is still playing out in the courts, but the example is instructive.  ↩

  2. To be fair, when I left to go on leave my email inbox had nothing in it, I was blissfully at “#inboxzero”.  ↩

email: just like normal mail but …

… well, it is just like normal mail and we should treat it the same way.

As far as productivity hacks go, the one thing I did that changed how I work is re-conceptualise email as a process of sending and receiving, you know, actual letters.

When I think about how I deal with the physical mail in my life, it dawned on me that treating email differently works against my goal of being productive and on top of things. Like a lot of people who complain about drowning in the email flood, I seemed always to be at the mercy of incoming email. It always found me at the most inconvenient times and it seemed that if I didn’t deal with it then and there, then I was not getting anywhere.

Of course now I recognise this as idiotic and I try to be smarter about how I deal with email (I have a whole bunch of email ‘hacks’ that I use which I’ll be posting up later), but the one that ties them all together is this:

I now treat email as if it was physical mail. I think about it in the same ways and I action it as if it was a physical letter.

This realisation translates into a few basic rules:

writing and sending email

  1. Writing email is a distinct and separate act. I can write email whenever I like – just like a letter – and I don’t have to look at the rest of my unopened mail to do so. Writing email is not dependent on any other task or action.
  2. I don’t have to send email right away. I can send it whenever I like. In fact, if I have a few emails (letters) that I have written, I can send them all at once by gathering them together and taking a walk to the local post box. The digital equivalent of this is drafting an email in something like TextEdit and then saving it, getting back to what I was working on before and waiting until the time arrives that I have set aside to deal with all my email at once (see below).
  3. Since I can’t control when a letter gets delivered and I have no idea when the recipient will get around to reading that letter, I shouldn’t expect an immediate reply. Letter writing and delivery and having the letter read is an asynchronous activity. It can take time and it involves more than one person who autonomously makes decisions about how they work with their letters. Email is also an asynchronous activity that also involves more than one person making decisions about their own workflow.
  4. Which means: I don’t use email for urgent matters. If I need to get in contact with someone else quickly, I use some other method that will reach them then and there. The test for whether it is important or not is this: If it is that urgent that it can’t wait, it had also better be that important that it warrants me deliberately interrupting someone else’s attention. Since I hate other people interrupting me with non-urgent requests, I make sure I don’t do it to others.
  5. I send the least amount of email I possibly can. If I want to ask a colleague something and it can wait, instead of writing an email I’ll jot down the question in a notebook and the next time we bump into each other I’ll ask the question then. Writing the question down gets it out of my head (which has its own benefits) and not sending email in the first place reduces the overall volume I have to deal with.

reading and answering email

  1. Reading email is a distinct and separate act. I can read email whenever I like – just like a letter. It makes sense, then, to be in the right frame of mind and have some dedicated time to reading email. Since I don’t know in advance what my email might contain, I deliberately set aside some time to thoughtfully read and respond. Therefore:
  2. Just like physical mail, I batch process my reading and responding to email.
  3. Since email is an asynchronous method of communication, it is unreasonable for others to expect me to read it as soon as they send it. Just because the act of sending is instantaneous, that doesn’t mean that I open my email client (the equivalent of walking down to the letter box or post office to see if anything has arrived) at the start of the day and then keep getting up from my work to go down and check it multiple times during the day.
  4. I check email once per day. At 2pm. This is known as the #2pmProject. If you are interested in seeing how a few of us use this, you can do a #2pmProject search on Twitter.
  5. To send or respond to email generally means more email comes back towards me so if email doesn’t need a response, I don’t respond. For example, if a departmental email comes around asking for people to volunteer for a particular committee and I can’t accept, I don’t respond with a “Sorry, I can’t do it and here’s my excuse” email, I just simply don’t respond at all. The writing of the excuse email is a waste of my time and the recipient doesn’t want to know why I can’t do it, they just want to know who can do it.

Reconceptualising email as a physical object has helped me to understand how it is that email flows towards me and how it moves away from me. It also highlights the important role that I play in managing, reducing or increasing that flow. By mentally adding ‘timing’ to each stage of the email process I now think about it not as something that is urgent and has to be done right now, but something that can be slotted into my day at a time that is right for me and my workflow.

If you find yourself struggling with email and feel that you are always reacting to email and not getting anything done, take a moment to re-imagine email as a physical object and ask yourself the following question:

What would happen if I waited to deal with email at a time that suited me?