<<< Friday, March 07, 2003 04:08 PM


Saturday, March 08, 2003 10:40 AM >>>

The Tyranny of Email

Saturday,  03/08/03  11:41 AM

Email is one of the greatest things the computer revolution has done for personal productivity.  Used improperly, it can also hurt your productivity.  This article discusses ways to use email effectively.  Then it goes beyond that and talks about how to be productive, period.

When Email Goes Bad

I'm not going to list all the reasons email is good.  You know them already, I assume you are an avid email user.  (Anyone reading this is online, and just about anyone who goes online uses email.)  I'm also not going to tell you email is evil, because it isn't.  The negative productivity impact of email comes from the way you use it, not the medium itself.

There are two ways email impairs your productivity:

  1. It breaks your concentration.
  2. It misleads you into inefficient problem solving.

Let's take the concentration impact first.  I'm a software engineer, and programming requires extended periods of concentration.  Actually this isn't unique to programming, a lot of fields require that you concentrate.  (Probably just about everything worth doing requires some concentration!)

I maintain that programming cannot be done in less than three-hour windows.  It takes three hours to spin up to speed, gather your concentration, shift into "right brain mode", and really focus on a problem.  Effective programmers organize their day to have at least one three-hour window, and hopefully two or three.  (This is why good programmers often work late at night.  They don't get interrupted as much...)

One of the key attributes of email is that it queues messages.  Unlike face-to-face conversation and 'phone calls, people can communicate via email without both paying attention at the same time.  You pick the moments at which you pay attention to email.  But many people leave their email client running continuously.  This is the biggest baddest reason why email hurts your productivity.  If you leave your email client running, it means anyone anytime can interrupt what you're doing.  Essentially they pick the moments at which you pay attention.  (Even some random spammer who is sending you a crappy ad for a get-rich scheme.)  This is bad.

There are three stages to this badness.  Stage one is configuring your email client to present alerts when you receive an email.  Don't do this.  Stage two is configuring your email client to make noise when you receive an email.  Don't do this.  Stage three is running your email client all the time.  Don't do this, either.  To be effective, you must pick the moments at which you're going to receive email.  I know this goes against common wisdom.  Just about everyone I know runs their client all the time, has it configured to make noise, and may even have it present alerts when an email is received.  Don't do it.

Spam is the best kind of email to get, because you look at it quickly, see that it's spam, and delete it.  Then you get back to work.  Personal email is the second best kind of email to get, because you either respond quickly ("Hi Jane, great hearing from you.  See you at the club tonight.") or set it aside for later.  Task-oriented work email is the worst kind of email to get.  It often requires thought, and because it is work there is some immediacy to it.  But as soon as you take the time to respond, you've interrupted yourself.  You've shifted back to "left brain mode", and you've lost the thread of your concentration.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't respond to emails promptly.  Check email whenever you're interrupted anyway - before you start work, after a meeting, after lunch, before you go home, etc.  Set aside time to do this.  Just don't let others dictate the timing.

Has this ever happened to you?

[ In the hallway at work... ]
O:  "Hi R, how's it going?"
R:  "Great, how are you?"
O:  "Good.  Hey, did you see my email about the framitz?"
R:  "No, I haven't checked my email yet today, sorry."
O:  "WHAT!"

It has happened to me.  Sometimes I can't believe it - I sent the email at 9:30, and here it is 11:30, and they haven't checked their email?  What are they doing?  They're being efficient, that's what.  They're picking their moment to be interrupted, and that's a good thing.  We'll revisit this theme again below in the Three Hour Rule.  For now, here's the takeaway:

  • Turn your email client off.  You should pick the moment at which you'll be interrupted.  

Okay, now let's look at the second productivity-sapping attribute of email, that it misleads you into inefficient problem solving.  Email is a communication medium.  You send messages to others, you receive messages from others.  Some of these messages are mere data transmission - FYIs so you know what's going on.  Some are "noise" - 'thank you's, 'I got it's, jokes, etc.  And some - many - are problem solving.  You hear about a problem, and you respond with a possible solution, or a possible approach, or more questions.  Nothing wrong so far - email is a good medium for problem solving.  And it is so easy - you get an email, you think (sometimes), and you respond.  Poof, you're done.

Except when you're not.  Because there are some kinds of problems which don't get solved in email, ever.  And as soon as you have that kind of problem, you have to stop, immediately, before you make the problem worse.

First, never, ever, criticize someone in email.  For reasons which I have never fully grasped, any negative emotion is always amplified by communication through email.  Sometimes you intend to be critical - someone has done something dumb, or said something silly, or emailed something ridiculous.  Resist the urge to reply.  Sometimes you don't mean to be critical - you're just making an observation, or engaging in technical debate, or adding facts to a discussion.  But as soon as you sense that the recipient has taken your email as criticism, you must immediately switch media - a face-to-face meeting is best, but a 'phone call is also okay.

Second, don't get into prolonged technical debates in email.  I've seen threads lasting weeks with a whole series of kibitzers, with everyone restating their points of view and nothing getting settled.  Often email has the effect of polarizing the debate, and the combatants end up further apart in their views than when the debate began.  As soon as you sense this happening, you must immediately switch media.  A meeting with the core people involved is best, but a conference call is also okay.

Both of these kinds of problems which don't get solved in email are exacerbated by copying others.  The bigger the audience, the worse things get.  As bad as it is to be critical in email, it is far worse if ten colleagues are copied.  Often the presence of an email audience is what makes for the polarization of technical debates - if the core people were the only ones involved, they would be less virulent and more willing to acknowledge other points of view and seek compromise.  Okay, so here's the takeaway:

  • Never criticize anyone in email, and avoid technical debates.  Use face-to-face meetings or 'phone calls instead.

Before I go on to talking about productivity in general, let me share some other thoughts about email.  First, be judicious in who you send email to, and who you copy on emails.  Every email recipient is going to lose a little time reading each email you send.  Simple emails which say "thanks" or "got it" or "see you at the meeting" are polite and part of normal human communication.  But there is a limit, no need to reply "you're welcome", or "glad you got it", or "great, I'll see you, too".  In my career I've run large teams, and sometimes people in those teams copied me on virtually every email they sent.  Maybe they wanted me to know what was going on, or maybe they were letting me know what a great job they were doing.  Either way, they were taking my time with stuff I didn't need to spend time on.  I have a high capacity for skimming email, but there is always the feeling that they didn't get it; like "why did they copy me on this?"  There should be a purpose to every addressee on each email.  It is okay to drop recipients from a reply - in fact, it is good; less people are involved, and [to reiterate the point] the bigger the audience, the more any implied criticism or debate will be exacerbated.

I have to digress for a pet peeve.  I send an email to S, and S replies, copying eight other people.  I reply back to S alone.  S replies, again copying eight other people.  This is bad.  If I'm smart I will abandon email and continue the conversation with S face-to-face or over the 'phone.  If I'm not smart I'll flame S so badly his hair catches fire, copying everyone, and regret it later.

Second, email is a very relaxed medium, but observing some formality is important.  Use an email client which spell checks.  Use normal capitalization.  Use correct grammar - complete sentences make email easier to read just like everything else.  Don't use weird background colors and strange fonts.  Don't append pictures of your dog.  You get the picture...  I've received emails from senior people which bordered on illiterate, with incorrect capitalization, grammar, incomplete sentences, etc.  The impression is not positive.

Third, email can be immediate, but don't hesitate to review and revise important emails.  In many companies email has all but replaced paper memos.  In many business situations email has replaced letters.  When writing an email which has a wide distribution, or which affects a negotiation, or possible deal, or potential sale, take the time to write a draft, and reread it later.  You can almost always improve the wording, make a point more concisely, or otherwise improve the communication.

Finally, remember that email is a public and permanent record.  Email is plain text and goes out over public networks, and is often stored on servers for a long time and may be backed up for a longer time.  It might feel "throwaway" at the time, but it will not be thrown away, as senior executives at Microsoft, Enron, Worldcom, and others have discovered.  If you have something to say which won't bear the public light of day, it shouldn't be said in email.  And if you are sending something confidential or sensitive, consider sending it as an encrypted and/or password-protected attachment.

Okay, enough about email.  Here's the six rules for avoiding email tyranny:

  1. Turn your email client off.  Pick the moment at which you'll be interrupted.
  2. Never criticize anyone in email, and avoid technical debates.  Use face-to-face meetings or 'phone calls instead.
  3. Be judicious in who you send email to, and who you copy on emails.
  4. Observing some formality is important.
  5. Don't hesitate to review and revise important emails.
  6. Remember that email is a public and permanent record.

Got it?  Cool.  Thinking about email productivity led me to make some comments about productivity in general...

The Three Hour Rule

Programming is a right-brain activity.  It is very conceptual and spatial and [gasp!] artistic.  Effective programming requires that you transition from your body's normal "left brain" mode into a "right brain" zone.  As I mentioned above, programming cannot be done in less than three-hour windows.  Really.  And in talking to friends in other fields, I'm convinced this applies to many other lines of work.

When you're in a three-hour zone, you've spun up to speed, gathered your concentration, shifted into "right brain mode", and are focusing on a problem.  You're being productive.  There are four things which can interrupt you, and you have to watch out for all of them:

  1. Receiving email or 'phone calls.
  2. Personal contact with colleagues.
  3. Meetings.
  4. Warp-offs.

Let's talk about each of these...  First, emails or 'phone calls.  Email we've talked about, this one is easy - just turn your email client off.  Done.  Most people receive far less 'phone calls than emails, so calls aren't nearly as much of a problem.  The solution is the same - put your phone in "do not disturb" mode.  Nowadays most everyone has a cell 'phone, leave that on, and if there is a genuine emergency your significant other or doctor or whomever will reach you there.  Most calls to your desk are colleagues or customers; these are important, but as with email, you should pick the time to take them.

Second, there is personal contact with colleagues.  Most companies these days can't afford for everyone to have a private office, so it is pretty easy to get interrupted.  (If you have an office, close the door!)  Distractions include ambient noise, questions ("Hey, do you know how to invoke a framitz?"), and other interruptions ("Hey, you want to play foosball?").  These are really important (especially foosball), but they are interruptions, and they will mess up your three-hour window.  Basically you want to isolate yourself from your colleagues, just like with email and 'phone calls.  To deal with ambient noise, get yourself some really good headphones and play music.  Cordless, if you want.  For $100 you will have the best-sounding music you can imagine, and a sure-fire way to eliminate background noise.

The "office vs. cubicle" debate rages and has not been settled.  Some companies give every engineer their own office, and claim the productivity improvement is worth the cost.  Others feel the atmosphere is better in a cubicle farm, and the interaction between engineers leads to better problem solving.  Without taking a stand in this debate, the fact is that most engineers work in cubicles, and have little control over this.  So it is what it is - you have to make the best of it.

In 2000 I joined PayPal, a dot-com with an egalitarian work environment where everyone had a cubicle, even the CEO.  After many years of enjoying a private office, I was back in a cube.  I quickly found two things to be essential, first, I positioned my desk and computer so I was not distracted by traffic (away from the cube opening), and second, I bought a great pair of cordless headphones.  With these adaptations I was able to work just as productively as I had in an office.  (Of course I used conference rooms for meetings.)

Dealing with questions and interruptions from colleagues is more difficult.  The give-and-take between engineers in a team is important; often one person will have the answer to another's dilemma.  There is also the social aspect, it is enjoyable to interact with your colleagues.  However, you need to have those three-hour windows.  I recommend a simple sign you can hang on your cube: "I'm in a zone", "Do not disturb", etc.  (This is a chance to be creative...)  Essentially you want your colleagues to know you're zoning.  If they have a technical question which can wait, they can put it in email, or wait until you emerge.  If they need immediate attention ("hey, you want to play foosball?") at least they know you were in a zone, and that they're interrupting you.

Third, meetings...  Ah yes.  An entire book can be written about meetings, and many have.  Let me make a few comments about meetings and then leave it.  Meetings interrupt everyone who attends, obviously, so they are "expensive".  They are also often the best way to communicate team status and to problem-solve.  So there is tremendous leverage in having good meetings instead of bad ones.  Each meeting should have a well-defined purpose, and the organizer should keep the meeting on track.  It is good to have meetings "first thing", bordering on lunch, or at the end of the day; this way people's three-hour windows are less affected.  Enough about meetings...  they are what they are.

Finally, warp-offs.  So, what's a "warp-off"?  Well, unlike the other three kinds of interruptions, in which other people interrupt you, a "warp-off" is when you interrupt yourself.  Generally this happens because you're stuck - you don't know what to do next - so you switch tasks and do something you know how to do.  My favorite warp-off is surfing the Internet.  Sometimes when I'm working on a tough problem, I have to force myself not to do it.  Other possible warps include: reading email (!), working on "fun" stuff instead of "hard" stuff, bugging your colleagues ("foosball, anyone?"), and of course posting to your 'blog :)  Keeping yourself from warping off is really tough, and gets into what motivates people and a bunch of stuff I can't really tackle here, but the main thing is to be self-aware enough to realize that you do it (everyone does), and strong enough to work on not doing it.  I tend to warp when I'm stuck, so the best un-warp strategies for me are ways to un-stuck myself.  These include talking to others, taking a bike ride, thinking out of the box (generally above the box - take a bigger picture view), trying to simplify the problem, and relentless application of W=UH ("if something it is too ugly or too hard, it is wrong").

In re: working on "fun" stuff instead of "hard" stuff, it is interesting to think about what makes some tasks fun and others hard.  I think happiness comes from liking yourself, and fun things are things which make you like yourself.  Tasks which are fun are therefore tasks which you know how to do, and which demonstrate your proficiency.  Tasks which are hard are tasks which you don't know how to do, or which reveal a lack of expertise.  There is often feedback involved - fun tasks will gain you recognition from customers or coworkers, but hard tasks may not.

When you get stuck and find yourself doing something "fun" instead of something "hard", ask yourself what makes the hard thing hard?  In a perfect world each person would always be assigned tasks which they're good at, and which gain them recognition, so that everything they do is fun.  The world isn't perfect, but that's the goal.

Okay, that's a lot of words, let's see if we can summarize.  There is essentially one big rule and four guidelines:

  • Big Rule: It takes three hours to get anything done.
  • Guidelines:
    1. Turn off your email client, put your 'phone in "do not disturb".
    2. Isolate yourself.  Get good headphones.  Warn colleagues when you're "in the zone", to minimize their interrupts.
    3. Minimize meetings and schedule them to avoid three-hour windows.
    4. Become self-aware about warping off and try to un-stuck yourself.

That's it - thanks for your attention.  If you have comments about any of this, I'd love to hear them; please shoot me an email.  Don't worry, it won't interrupt me :)

[ Later - this article generated a terrific response - thank you! - and I have summarized the most interesting observations and comments as Tyranny Revisited... ]

[Update 3/5/09 - the antidote to the tyranny of email... ]