Tuesday, September 30, 2008

E-mail overload

It is surprising that the amount of email is still growing slowly. Or rather, not that the amount of email in absolute terms is growing, but that long time users like me still slowly receive more and more email.

And i'm not the only one. Browsing over the web i came across several websites with terms like "email bankrupticy" - that term now has over 10 million hits at google.

Those people are a lot worse off than me: this morning when I arrived at the office I had only 30 unread emails in my office inbox, and about 50 in my gmail account.

Over the years, I have developed several rules which limit the amount of email in my inbox, and which help me to cope with them.

  1. The less emails I write, the less I receive.
    Emails invoke replies by email.
    I try not to write emails:
    - to cover my ass
    - to inform fellow workers in the same room (there are always exceptions)
    - which are a 2nd reply to some one. This ends endless debates.
    - for things which require a speedy answer - phones are much better at that
    - for explanations which are likely to invite further questions - phones are much better suited at this.

  2. Avoid irritation
    An old courtesy rule is: DONT USE CAPITALS! - Using capitals is the internet way to shout, and shouting is impolite.
    But there are lots of other ways to annoy people. I found it is much better to phone people when i feel irritated, than to reply to their email - heat always sips through.

  3. Long emails invite long replies, short emails invite short replies
    So if i want a brief answer, i write a brief email.

  4. Organize incoming email
    Gmail does a fantastic job at this. All replies and forwards are stored with the original message in 1 thread, and all emails can be read in sequence. In fact you are naturally invited to combine the information in all related emails before you start to react on the email. This is a great time saver for handling incoming email: the 50 emails i received on my gmail account i could dispose of in about 5 minutes. about 3 of them were forwards by my wife, a matter of simply reading and archiving. Over 40 were from the wikimedia foundation: from the title of the topic it was clear these discussions did not interest me and i could archive them straight away: 3 clicks for over 40 emails.

    In comparison: the emails in MS Outlook can not even be sorted well on topic, as the FW: and RE tages in fron of the subject spoil the sorting. MS would do a great service to the world if they built in an option to seperate these tags from incoming and sent emails, and present them in a separate column.

    For the time being, i'll try to write an ms outlook macro which strips the tags from the subject. If you happen to know such a macro, please let me know!

  5. Rules
    Whatever your tool is, rules are very handy to sort and handle email. I have subscriptions to several newsletters, discussion boards, and tools for administrating projects / bugs / wishes. These tools send me information when something changes which might be of interest to me. I dont want to stop these automatic signals - sometimes they are important. Our customer uses Team Foundation System to register bugs, and we use Bugtracker to register bugs in relation to our subcontractor in India. Both send me an update for every edit made. I have already cut down in TFS the number of emails i want to receive, but not all signals are immediatly important. A signal that something changed is important in the quiet days of a project, while on the busyu days i want to schedule my visits to TFS myself.
    The same applies to Bugtracker. So i define rules in outlook that moves these emails to a separate folder. The fact that it is bold is sufficient for me to know that i have to visit that tool.