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This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Reclaim Your Inbox
Posted By Erin Dorney On October 31, 2012 @ 6:00 am In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled
In Brief: In this article, co-authors Lindsay Sarin and Erin Dorney experiment with managing email (testing three existing systems), explore the idea of managing communication expectations, and consider the implications these strategies could have on our library communities.
Email celebrated its 41st birthday this year. Originally a technology reserved for the savviest of computer geeks, email first moved into the academic and corporate worlds, then into our homes, and today into our pockets. A 2011 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Projectfound that 92% of adults in the United States use email, with 49% of those surveyed checking their email on a daily basis (p. 2). The Radicati Group, a market research firm focused on the computer and telecommunications industry, reports that in 2011, “…the typical corporate email user sends and receives about 105 email messages per day” (p. 3).
Librarians have not been immune to this superabundance of messages. Internally, we leverage email as an asynchronous tool to communicate with coworkers and professional colleagues. Externally, we use email to reach out and respond to our communities. Add in personal email to family and friends, and the amount of time spent communicating via email can be overwhelming. For this reason, some individuals and organizations have begun building guidelines for managing their email (discussed in more detail below).
However, email itself—the software that runs on our computers and connects them—may not be the root of the communication problem. Messages and inboxes are likely here to stay; they are even integrated into social media tools like Facebook. Yes, there is a lot of email and sometimes we feel overwhelmed with information, spam, and requests. But perhaps the problem is related to time management, task prioritization, and impulse control. Maybe instead of trying to manage the number of emails in our inbox, we should instead try to manage expectations on both the individual and organizational level.
In this Lead Pipe article, co-authors Lindsay Sarin (MLS Program Coordinator at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies) and Erin Dorney (Outreach Librarian at Millersville University) experiment with managing email (testing three existing systems), explore the idea of managing communication expectations, and consider the implications these strategies could have on our library communities.
In his 2009 Harvard Business Review article, author Paul Kemp cites research revealing that it took people about 25 minutes to return to work after email “interruptions” (p. 83). That’s a long time to recover, especially when studies by human computer interaction researchers indicated that many feel that email is a task that they need to do continually throughout the day (Czerwinski, M., Horvitz, E., & Wilhite, S, 2004; Markus, 1994; as cited in Hair, M., Renaud, K.V., & Ramsey, J., 2006, p.2792,). Hair, et. al (2006), also state that certain personality types associated the pressures of email with a “lack of control over their work environment,” which increased the level of stress they felt at work (p.2800). A study by Barley, S., Meyerson, D.E., & Grodal, S. (2011), faculty at Stanford and Boston Universities, displayed a similar pattern; 45% of participants “associated the volume of email they received with loss of control” (p. 898). In particular, participants were afraid to fall behind in their work or miss out on information. The proliferation of smart phones only magnifies this issue, as it becomes easier to sync work email to a device carried almost constantly (even into the bathroom).
Feeling the need to check email constantly stresses us out. Fulfilling that need by actually checking the email constantly then causes even more stress. The Barley, S., Meyerson, D.E., & Grodal, S. (2011) study demonstrated that although email interruptions during the work day can make us less productive, we continue to respond in order to avoid the resulting guilt when we cannot answer or process emails quickly (p. 895). The same study revealed “…e-mail’s material properties entwined with social norms and interpretations in a way that led informants to single out e-mail as a cultural symbol of the overload they experience in their lives” (p.887). Additional findings suggest email “diverts attention from tasks at hand” and “causes people to shift gears and add new tasks to their current stack” (p. 888). Email both interrupts the ability to complete tasks and adds to workload stress.
Between the interruptions and the stress, it’s no wonder that some have turned to the creation of email guidelines in order to work more efficiently and seek a better work/life balance. The most popular of these guidelines is The Email Charter, sparked by a 2011 blog post by TED Curator, Chris Anderson, and TED Scribe, Jane Wulf. According to the Charter:
“An email inbox has been aptly described as the to-do list that anyone in the world can add an item to. If you’re not careful, it can gobble up most of your working week. Then you’ve become a reactive robot responding to other people’s requests, instead of a proactive agent addressing your own true priorities. This is not good.”
The Email Charter offers 10 rules to reverse the email spiral, but it isn’t the only email management technique in common use. After reviewing The Email Charter and some other guidelines1, we decided to select three techniques and experiment with them, as part of our investigation into the role of email in our lives. We tested four.sentenc.es, Inbox Zero, and The Email Game. Although there are some email management strategies that require users to purchase particular software, all of the methods tested for this article were free of monetary cost.
Before moving on, we thought it only fair to share some background in order to provide context for the trials. Both of us began using email in the mid-nineties and currently manage between two and four email accounts. We have iPhones synced with email, however, we do not use the automatic push feature. Instead, we opt to practice self control and fetch email at times that are convenient to us.
Created in 2007 by Mike Davidson2, the premise of four.sentenc.es is that emails should be treated like text messages—written with the fewest number of characters possible. Instead of counting letters or words, this method encourages users to limit their messages to a specified number of sentences. We elected to write and respond to emails using four sentences, but users can also select two.sentenc.es, three.sentenc.es, or five.sentenc.es based on how extreme they’d like to be. Users are encouraged to include a note about the method (with a link) in the signature line of every email.
Four.sentence.es proved to be a challenging lesson in creating focused messages, forcing us to look closely at the assumptions we made about email content and length. This method put the onus on the email sender (us) to be mindful and identify the most critical pieces of information for inclusion. The tactic felt similar to crafting a tweet in less than 140 characters. We quickly found that attempting to cram a lot of information into a restricted space had a negative impact on grammar. We were also concerned with how a four-sentence email might be perceived by the recipients; one author felt like it was rude to respond to long emails in so few words. However, if anyone felt like we were being brusk during the course of our week-long experiment with four.sentenc.es, they didn’t say anything to us about it. This made us consider email etiquette and how communication seemed linked to the expectations (perceived or realistic) of others. In some circumstances, we felt justified (even vindicated) in replying to long messages with a short but thoughtful message. In others, such as email to family members or significant others, sending a short message felt a little bit awkward.
Inbox Zero was the brainchild of Merlin Mann3 and became highly popularized after a viral video of Mann’s presentation at a 2007 Google Tech Talk. The underlying philosophy of this method is that users should stop using their inboxes as to-do lists and keep them empty, thereby reducing stress and increasing productivity. Mann offers strategies to do so, including productivity sprints, filters, and a simple list of actions. Each time users check their email, they process every single message using one of these five actions: delete or archive; delegate; respond; defer; do.
Above all else, we found that this email management method required individuals to be ruthless in adhering to the rules. While it felt freeing to look at an empty inbox, this approach was heavily dependent on impulse control—carving out specific times to check for new mail throughout the day and processing every single email using one of the five actions. However, we did find that Inbox Zero allowed us to manage time efficiently and increase productivity. One of the authors set aside time to work on deferred items and didn’t feel distracted by the latest “fire” that came down the pike. She found that it was also much easier to go through and delete junk in one pass rather than when it arrived every few minutes (vendor emails, spam, university-wide notifications).
The Email Game applies game mechanics to quickly and purposefully engage users with their email. As each message is viewed, users see a countdown box with the number of seconds remaining for them to reply, skip, archive, or delete the message. Although these actions are similar to those from Inbox Zero, the game interface makes it seem less like work and more like fun. Users also have the option to “boomerang” the message, archiving it for now and bringing it back to their inbox when they choose (time ranges from 1 hour to 2 weeks). When all messages have been addressed, users receive points and badges that accumulate on a personal dashboard.
We had a lot of fun testing this email management technique. It seemed to work best when a lot of emails had collected. Because more emails resulted in more points, we exercised more impulse control in order to allow the number of emails build. One drawback was that The Email Game only works with Gmail, while the other two methods we tested could be used with Microsoft Outlook or any other email client. Additionally, using The Email Game interface requires users to share your Google password and could potentially compromise email privacy. This was the only tactic that garnered feedback from those who received emails during our testing. A librarian colleague noted Erin’s tagline automatically placed at the bottom of her message and replied:
“I saw the Email Game link at the bottom of your message and checked it out. Wow! This is EXACTLY what I need! Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by my email inbox that I just shut down and ignore it, and of course that only makes things worse! I also have a habit of starting to write an email, and then thinking of something else and opening another tab, and then before I know it, I’ve spent 25 minutes on Wikipedia or YouTube and have only two sentences of a reply written. I’m glad I’m not the only one that happens to! I’m going to try this out for a bit and see if I like it and if it helps me get things done. Good recommendation!”
The Email Game is the method that we have most consistently used since our testing phase. We’re especially inclined to use this technique when we’re feeling stressed by the number of emails in our inboxes. However, we still wish we could use it on our phones and with email services other than Gmail.
Overall, our trials revealed three deceptively simple lessons:
In libraries, we are used to doing more with less. We want to help and educate our users, which often requires us to respond quickly (and with a smile). However, in order to protect our limited time and avoid being sucked into a quagmire of anxiety about email, we need to consider managing our inboxes and our expectations.
As a profession, we have moved some of our collaborative work away from email. The creation of ALA Connect allows the library community to collaborate through threaded discussion boards, groups, and online documents. Grassroot collectives like the ALA Think Tank and Library Society of the World are using existing social media (Facebook and FriendFeed) as an alternative to to traditional mailing lists. There are low-cost or free alternatives like Google Groups, Basecamp, Smartsheet, and Action Method, as well as internally-focused wikis and blogs. Still, many internal and external collaborations take place through email, including committee work, brainstorming, and decision-making within our institutions.
When expectations are not clearly defined, individuals may experience anxiety about communication and feel pressure to remain connected and responsive at all times. This anxiety is not imagined—the Stanford and Boston study also found that respondents who answer emails more quickly (within hours) are often viewed as more conscientious or caring, where as those who respond more slowly (generally beyond one day) were viewed as less so (p. 899).
Consider the following scenarios:
Both of the situations described above could be remedied with clearer communication about communication. Librarians want to be helpful, but we cannot be tied to our desks or devices every second of the day. As we experimented with managing email, the most profound lesson we learned was that we must manage our own expectations about how we (and others) choose to respond or not respond, and how quickly.
This can start with an open conversation. If you are feeling stressed about the amount of email you receive, tell your colleagues what management methods you’re trying so they won’t become frustrated when you respond to each request in less than four sentences or when you don’t respond on Saturdays. If you’re working on a committee, discuss communication from the very beginning, so if someone is catching up on all of their committee work on Sundays, you won’t be upset when they don’t reply to your email during the workweek. If there is a particular person who doesn’t follow what you view as good email etiquette (e.g. cc’s you on things that don’t involve you or takes weeks to respond to direct requests), then it’s time to have a frank conversation. Some of us get anxious when faced with a potential conflict, but what’s worse: feeling stressed-out, guilty, and unproductive, or having a conversation in which you set up some ground rules? We’re voting for conversation, with a smile of course.
We’re interested in hearing about your experiences with email and communication expectations. Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of email you receive? Have you tried any of the methods described above, or other techniques to manage your email? What sort of expectations are at play at your place of work regarding communication (email or otherwise)?
Many thanks to our external peer reviewer Tracy Gold and Lead Pipers Brett Bonfield, Ellie Collier, and Emily Ford for their feedback on this article.
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