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Email is a Broken Communication Medium. Here's What I'm Doing About It.

I had many, many, many thoughts today on why email is a completely broken communication medium in the workplace, both in terms of its effectiveness as a communication tool and in terms of the horrendous unproductive time suck it can so easily become.

For example, when there are issues with production systems high-speed, high-volume email threads between co-workers should not be the primary means of communicating. Generating a horrendous amount of noise and distraction in a crisis is pretty much the last thing you want to do, and certainly reading and replying to emails about a problem should not make up 90% of the time spent solving the problem.

Furthermore, in a lot of organizations email is seen as something it's not, namely a synchronous, instantaneous medium. Email is not IM. Email isn't a ringing phone that someone has to answer right away. We need to stop thinking of it that way.

Sure, email is delivered more or less instantly, but the habit that I (and I'm sure others) fall into, particularly if you get an alert sound or some other indication every time you receive an email, is checking the old inbox as a Pavlovian reflex.

Rather than merely flapping my gums with an "email sucks" rant, I'm finally annoyed enough with the problem and convinced about how bad it is on numerous levels (some companies think it's so bad they're banning email entirely) that I'm going to do something about it. Doing something--anything at all--is better than doing nothing, so here's what I came up with so far.

First, I installed StatusNet on a server so my co-workers and I can pilot it. To me that's pretty much "problem solved" for a lot of issues but I'm sure some folks will take some convincing. That's understandable, but I'm remaining optimistic for the moment. (My colleagues and I have about a gazillion ideas on just how counter-productive and horrible email is as well as how StatusNet will be used and some of the problems it'll solve, so I should have more to say about that as we put our lofty theories into practice.)

Second, I am adopting the following rules for my work email:

  1. Inbox Zero. No almosts. No exceptions. Zero means zero. Included in this is not using my inbox as a to-do list, something of which I am horribly guilty.
  2. No folders or saved email. No exceptions. If something in an email is important enough to save, it must be saved somewhere appropriate for the specific type of information, be that a wiki page, Keepass, a good old-fashioned browser bookmark, or whatever. My email account will no longer be used as a filing cabinet.
  3. I will not check my email every time I hear my phone buzz. I will add a hopefully not-too-offensive note to my email signature explaining that if something is urgent and requires a reply any sooner than 1 hour minmum, people should contact me via IM or phone. (There may be some issues with the defintion of "urgent" during the adjustment period but I think this is a good starting place.)

Throw some Pomodoro Technique into the mix and I'll probably be so productive my hair will catch on fire.

I'd be interested in hearing your experiences with this. How do you treat and handle email? Have you tried to break the email habit? If so, what worked and what didn't?

When I look back at a day like today and the amount of actual work accomplished is such a small percentage of the 14+ hours I spent furiously working on issues, that's a clear indication something is drastically wrong. Even if some of what I outline above fails it's better than the status quo, because the status quo is failing miserably.


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