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The email of the species - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
The email of the species
Further to yesterday's post on the other blog: of course, a lot of my problems with email are problems with me. (I'm keeping this here because it's more about me and my fail and my angst, and as such it definitely belongs on LiveJournal!) So, some bad email behaviours:

If it's still in my inbox, I haven't failed at it yet

All those awkward emails I never replied to; emails I don't want to reply to, but want to remember that I haven't replied to yet; information emails where I still think I'll do something with the information -- blog about it, post it to another mailing list, complain to someone about it, sign up for something, buy something, sell something... Failing to do something may be bad, but failing to commit to not doing it is in some ways worse: the thing still doesn't get done, but the brain's request tracker keeps the ticket open forever. It's like a big guilty memory-leak. And the inbox slowly fills up with things that aren't really in my 'in' tray any more, they're in my 'fail' tray; so the inbox becomes nothing but a screenful of fail. Some of the mails in my inbox have been there for six months.

(I have a similar problem with food that's probably gone off: I don't want to eat it, but I don't want to throw it away, because that's a waste -- and then I will have 'failed'. So I put it back in the cupboard, as if it was somehow going to recover from having gone off, or as if I was going to be more likely to want to eat it when it's gone even further past its best.)

I read email when I know I don't have time to reply to it

This always seems like a good idea -- it seems as though it should give me more warning of tasks coming up, more time to start thinking about a reply. In practice, it just means that I've mentally moved the email to the queue of "things I haven't replied to" (i.e., things which I feel faintly guilty about) before I've even had a chance to act on it. It's like having a "select all > mark as FAIL" option in my inbox.

I agonise about the wording of even the most trivial emails

I think part of the problem here is that I get so irritated by emails where the sender clearly hasn't thought about them at all, and I can't bear the thought that I might end up looking like that sort of person. This would be fine if it just encouraged me to write clearly, but in practice it means that even a simple request-for-information email (the sort of thing that should be one line long and take about 30 seconds) takes a ridiculously long time to write. Emails to friends are far harder. I can draft and redraft and even 'finish' writing an email -- but increasingly it feels impossible to commit to pressing 'send', and I'll hit 'cancel' instead. It's not the emotional/informational content of the email that's the problem, it's just the wording; nothing ever sounds right. There are really alarmingly few people I can talk to in email without worrying too much about my wording (I'm married to one of them).

Perhaps I should have had a 'reply to all emails on the day they arrive' month instead of wittering away on LiveJournal.

I still believe that email is something that doesn't take any time

I don't intellectually believe this, of course, but some bit of my brain obviously reckons that email is something that doesn't need any time allocated to it, something I can just fit in between other things. The more I wrestle with time-management, the more I think that the most important things to remember are that time is finite and everything takes time. (Arnold Bennett writes more effectively about this than I do in How to live on 24 hours a day.) I have tried estimating and then recording how much time I spend "checking email"; the results are frightening. At work, I've recently been trying to set time-slots for "dealing with email" and actually stick to them; I usually massively overrun (or under-allocate time, depending on how you look at it).

To be fair, actually, it's not just email that I seem to think shouldn't take any time; most of the things which never get done (or which I struggle to get done) are things to which I don't consciously allocate any time. I think the myth of multitasking is partly to blame for this.

Stopping here because a) I didn't have much more to say anyway, b) I want to allocate some time to actually getting some sleep, and to do that I need to get away from the computer, and c) it's probably good for me to just post the damn thing and stop agonising.

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Comments
atreic From: atreic Date: November 16th, 2009 08:10 am (UTC) (Link)
Nothing helpful to say, but I share your pain.

I have to read email when I don't have time to reply, otherwise I get blindsided in conversations where everyone assumes I know things I don't. My system for work is:

If I'm in a real panic, skim things in my inbox just so I know what's going on. If I have some time (30 minutes) go through my inbox, replying to the really really quick wins and urgent things, but mostly moving things out of my inbox and turning them into actions on my to-do list if they need something doing. This still has the problem of tickets that are open forever, but I'm trying to run a to-do list organised on the 2 dimensions of urgent / important, and if the not-urgent, not-important list has things on it that never get done, they're on the list, not in my brain, and I can defend why I didn't do them by looking at the things further up the list I did.

I organise my personal email much like you though :-/
j4 From: j4 Date: November 16th, 2009 12:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
otherwise I get blindsided in conversations where everyone assumes I know things I don't

Mm, I know what you mean, but I do think "sorry, I haven't read your email yet" is a reasonable thing to say -- particularly, some people sometimes need to be reminded that if they send an email half an hour before a meeting then they can't necessarily expect everyone at the meeting to have read it...

I think a reliable to-do list would help if I could find a way of preventing it turning into just another Big Box Of Fail! Maybe that's the way to expire emails, as task management software might be more likely to include that option...
cartesiandaemon From: cartesiandaemon Date: November 16th, 2009 10:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I feared your last post might provide an outpouring of "helpful" advice which wasn't. "Here's a program which has that feature you want" is _sometimes_ useful, but for many things we're actually living in a world where _deciding what features you want_ takes the time, not implementing them, so saying "you can do that this way" doesn't help, you already knew you could if you wanted, what you want is a program that does _all_ the things, even the things you didn't know you needed yet.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 16th, 2009 12:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
The advice on the previous post wasn't unhelpful -- it's good to know that clients exist which have (some of) the features I want! Also good to know I'm not missing something obvious that's actually available in all clients...

To be honest, thinking about the features I want would've been useful in terms of thinking-about-how-I-work even if nothing currently implemented them: at the end of the day all the features in the world can't actually make me do things. :-}
cartesiandaemon From: cartesiandaemon Date: November 16th, 2009 10:37 am (UTC) (Link)
If it's still in my inbox, I haven't failed at it yet

Oh yes, that captures that feeling _exactly_!
covertmusic From: covertmusic Date: November 16th, 2009 11:00 am (UTC) (Link)
I used to just remember email.

Then I started trying to manage our business and good golly aaaargh. I'm currently using a big To Reply bucket but that's not going to scale.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 16th, 2009 11:54 am (UTC) (Link)
For email to webmaster we use RT, & I actually really like it -- to the extent that I actually considered running it at home as well, but decided a) I CBA with sysadminning at home [I am a lousy sysadmin] and b) I don't want to leave a computer on all the time.

What I *really* want is a plugin for my brain so I can a) remember this stuff and b) SWITCH NO GUILT. :-}
covertmusic From: covertmusic Date: November 16th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think we'll have to use something like RT for support email. I'm using Highrise as a CRM for lead management, negotiation and stuff like that.

Negotiating. I'm a negotiator. I make deals.

WHAT THE F. This is not my beautiful house. Or pond. Whatever.

martling From: martling Date: November 16th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah yes, the failbox. I'm glad it's not just me.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 16th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
First rule of Teh Internet: It's Not Just You. 8-)
ewx From: ewx Date: November 16th, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC) (Link)

I haven't failed at it <i>yet</i>

There are pithy quotes about freedom to fail being important, I believe (though I suspect more usually deployed in favor of My Politics than email management).
j4 From: j4 Date: November 16th, 2009 04:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I haven't failed at it <i>yet</i>

Mm, I thought that was usually more like freedom to "fail" in the sense of experimenting, trying things out, being creative in ways which might not have an immediately useful output, etc... whereas this is more like "fail" in the sense of "stare at a wall getting nothing done". I don't want that sort of freedom! :-}
truecatachresis From: truecatachresis Date: November 16th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh dear, I recognise all of these...

Work inbox currently sitting at 1645.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 16th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
A colleague of mine has an inbox of over 30,000. He basically doesn't use folders, though. Or delete.

Over 1000 is about the point where I start fervently wishing for some kind of very specific server failure which would accidentally delete my entire inbox & thus take the decision out of my hands. :-}
oxfordhacker From: oxfordhacker Date: November 17th, 2009 11:36 am (UTC) (Link)
I agonise about the wording of even the most trivial emails

Oh god, yes. But see! as by writing this in 30 seconds then clicking 'post' I spit in the face of irony! Dammit, I'm not even going to preview first!
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