Monday, February 11, 2013

Let Me Ignore You More Efficiently

At first, when I read about Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten’s concept of re-inventing the email inbox, I was intrigued.

His concept, to sum up, invites his email submitters to classify their requests, as to whether they’re asking a yes/no question, sending an FYI message, sending a short message or sending a long message. Additionally, each sender gets an email from him indicating how long, on average, it takes him to respond to an email and allows him the option to simply ignore that shit and have it magically blow away after a preset time, or when he pushes a button on his end, sending your email message into the proverbial ethers.

That’s great email management. Until you realize it’s management that optimizes the receiver’s, and not the senders’ needs.

I don’t disagree that I get a lot of email that’s junk. It’s easy to ignore and easy to get rid of, without a fancy system. I also don’t receive gobs of email in a given day, so my email management needs are pretty limited. But the message such an email management system sends to the reader is that the receiver plans to ignore your message more efficiently. Yes, the idea is also to set up email in a way that lets simpler requests be answered in a more timely fashion -- and that's a great concept. Fishing through lots of emails to find the low-hanging fruit gets to be a shroe at times, even when you don't receive gobs of email messages. But the thought that more detailed requests are added to the perpetual pile of ignorage is kind of unsettling.

The core of this new email system seems to be that if you’ve sent an urgent request that goes ignored, you’d best pick up the phone and call your recipient right away to get the answer you need. Because, in reality, that’s how things work.

But woah, hoss – that works just as inefficiently as sending an email that’s going to be ignored. Look at it this way: Whether I’m sending an email or making a phone call, I’m sending the message that I need information or a response. A phone call, if answered, demands an immediate, sometimes off-the-cuff response leading, of course, to the inevitable “I’ll call you right back” loop, or the dreaded “I’ll just respond to your email” loop in which busy people fall constantly. It doesn’t matter what kind of message you send people. Busy people can ignore requests by phone as easily as by email, and additionally don’t have the advantage of a written request that email offers.

Additionally, there’s no guarantee the sender is going to classify his or her email correctly. They might see, for example, that you respond to yes/no questions fairly quickly and thus classify their non yes/no question as such. Uh-oh, your nifty little system is broken and it’s now back to you, the receiver, to sort through it all and program your new inbox to send a little chastising message to the offender.

Another additionally: As a technical writer, I know writing to your audience is the best way to get an answer. As such, I already write fairly terse emails that offer my recipients a short (very short) menu of options they can choose, most of which fall under a yes/no request. Constantly getting an email reminder to classify my own emails seems like an inefficient use of my time, which ought to be just as important as the recipient’s time, as I’m already writing efficient, easy-to-classify messages.

Of course, I have to remind myself that I live in a closed email system, where only people I work with can email me (I do get occasional emails from the outside world, mostly from my wife, but that’s about it). I don’t get gobs of email, either. But I do prefer emails over phone calls, since my job requires a paper trail for everything I do. Phones are pretty inefficient when it comes to official records.

Van Zanten is responding to Paul Graham’s call to improve email. More significantly, to improve email for powerful people. Or people who get lots of email. So the unwashed masses (such as I) probably won’t be impressed with the changes. And that’s just fine. If I got gobs of email I’d probably be in the same boat as these people. Until then, I’ll just use email as it was intended: Doing my job.

Both Graham and Van Zanten indicate that email, which started out as a messaging service, has devolved over the years into to-do lists, and that these efforts are meant to control what other people put on their to-do lists. That's well and good. But the funny thing about people putting

Post-Script: There is an easier way to achieve Inbox Zero: Just walk away. If a message is truly urgent, the sender will call. If you’re 81 hours behind in answering email, waiting another 24 hours isn’t going to kill anyone. The idea that because technology brings requests for help, information, or whatever into our life we must instantly respond is much more ludicrous than the idea of fixing email is, to be sure.

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