Email overload

I’m having an interesting conundrum right now. With my new (and very exciting) job at Sun, I’ve got a wide breadth of projects/technologies to be aware of and make strategic decisions on, people inside and outside the company to interact with, and background information to absorb so I can make informed decisions. I’m an email junkie, have been for a very long time. And, with my recent surgery, I’m stuck at home, not very mobile, while my Achilles tendon reattaches itself to it’s new home on my heal.

So, I need non-face to face communications methods, and email was my “go to” way of doing that. But, now it’s killing me. I now get over 1500 messages a week in my various accounts, that’s 200 a day (but much of it happens weekdays). I can keep up, but at what cost? I also have to read the content of many of the messages, schedule meetings to either be briefed on progress/issues, or make specific decisions. Now, I know others who get far more email than this, and I bow to their superior data handling skills, but I’m now finding I spend probably 4 hours a day reading, categorizing, flagging and responding to email, then another hour or two reviewing information in the mail I flagged (like a document or presentation). OK, I’m now up to 5-6 hours out of my day, and I’ve never actually seen or talked to anyone in person, and likely not made a significant impact in any of the areas I should be.

This is in the forefront of my thoughts now, since I’m supposed to be spending a lot of my time resting, maybe reading a book (I’ve even got a book to read for work :-), and my first week of recovery I found myself spending any time not sleeping, working. 1/2 on email 1/2 on meetings, while on painkillers that made me a little less patient than I usually am. My doctor was not very happy, nor was my admin, and my lovely wife just sighed knowingly. And they were all right. And, it was my own fault, I was creating my own email dungeon.

Then, what brought this home, in terms of the last straw, the point that told me I needed to fix my own problem I’d created. I was watching a recent version of Webb Alert with Morgan Webb. The part that perked my ears was her highlighting an Engadget article about a Motorola insider telling all about the fall. A little rant here, I’ve worked for a bunch of companies, it’s pretty easy to find hundreds or thousands of ways a company is “in trouble,” and then if it dies, they all look like an obvious roadmap for failure, but if the company succeed, they look like nothing at all. Hindsight is not a method of trying to make things better, it’s just an attempt pointing at problems, now that you know the result. So, how about people who spend their energy working with a company (and let’s be clear, if you work AT a company, you should either change your mindset, or find a company you can work WITH, and go there), doing all they can to make it successful, and if it fails, then they take your own personal responsibility for that, rather than blaming others, or saying “it was obvious, why didn’t anyone else see it”? OK, rant off.

Anywho, the article specifically mentioned Motorola’s CEO, Greg Brown, being “technically out of touch” because he had his secretary print out his email, and then dictate his responses. My first response wasn’t “gee, that guy is out of touch,” but rather, it sounded like he had an inbox so full he couldn’t manage it! His solution, to have someone on his staff scan his email for the messages that needed his personal attention, print them for easy access (one can safely assume a CEO’s time is in high demand, and they’re on the go all the time) and that way he could read them without having to cart around a laptop, make notes, then likely using a PHONE, have someone compose replies to the important ones. That then reminded me of Tim Ferriss, who’d outsourced his email reading and responding. Hey, wait, is Tim Ferriss, celebrated author of the “4 hour workweek,” technically out of touch? No, he’s touted as being a young, passionate visionary (and he is a very bright, very balanced guy, I like his work). He’s also found that summarizing email in a form other than, um, email, often makes it more digestible. He has his email summarized and read to him. Humm. Email, summarized and dictated. Maybe Greg read Tim’s book, or had it summarized by his staff into action items!

This then made me remember, I kinda liked the general idea Tim had for having someone else “think like him,” pay them to filter through the morass of email, finding the important ones and saving himself hours a day. Also, I’ve been a fan of David Allen’s “how to get things done”, and brutal focused email methodologies. Both have some great ideas for increasing productivity, by spending time on the important things, and filtering out the things that aren’t important. Keeping up the discipline is always a challenge though, especially when the load increases past what your process had previously handled. And, I’d used some of these for a while, then slacked off, fearing I was missing something important. Oops.

So, today as I sat here catching up on the weeks emails, flagging the ones I’d get to tomorrow, I’m re-thinking email as my primary deferred communications medium. The more you send, the more you get, and I send a lot, so I’m creating my own time-sucking environment. So, I’m now creating my “recovery filters,” pretty stringent filters for going through the important email only, and leaving the rest. And, I’m going to work on getting, and sending, muti-purpose messages. Ones that summarize person-to-person communication, rather than task-based communication. Fewer messages, more content per message. That’s how one-on-one meetings go, maybe that’d be a better way of organizing my email communication. It’ll be a challenge figuring out how to keep track of replies to a series of separate questions, so I’ll work on that first.

No great insights yet, I’m sure I’ll use a combination of the many “mail filtering” tools I’ve always used, but with more vigor. I’ll report back how this goes. I’m also going to try something challenging for an email addict, I’m gonna start by doing 4 email readings a day, and I’ll enforce it by closing my email client inbetween, and having a calendar appointment remind me when I should read it, thus removing it from my internal “todo list” and having that reminder happen externally, so I can just forget about it, I’ll be reminded when it’s OK to check again. But, it’s OK, I’ve got FriendFeed to keep me tapped in to everything happening on Twitter, and what all my contacts are doing, so I’m not going cold turkey!