Critical Section


"Tyranny" Revisited

Sunday,  03/16/03  02:29 PM

A week ago I posted a little article called The Tyranny of Email, giving some tips for improving personal productivity.  To say this struck a chord would be an understatement - I was Winer-ized, DayPop-ed, Popdex-ed, Blogdex-ed, and Slashdot-ed.  Looking in my referer logs, literally thousands of sites all over the blogosphere have linked to this article.  Surprisingly, most of the references were quite positive, sort of a net-wide "YEESS!"

Many of you took the time to send me email - over 400! - and I decided to summarize the most interesting ideas in this post.  There was also a great thread on Slashdot and two active discussions on JoelOnSoftware, both with many good ideas..  Thanks for all your feedback, it was great.

Instant messaging.  Many people asked about or commented on IM.  I don't use IM myself, so I didn't write about it in my article.  It seems to fit somewhere between email and 'phone; on the plus side it has the immediacy of a phone call and the typed accuracy of email, and on the minus side it combines the impersonality of email with the urgency of phones.  If you IM, I suggest turning off your IM client whenever you want to concentrate.  Not only do IM messages interrupt your "flow", just like email, but IM clients can interrupt you just to let you know a friend has come online, even if that friend doesn't have anything to say.  That's a sure invitation to "warp off".

Turning off email vs. just not checking.  Okay, this is a little subtle, but bear with me here.  Several people noted that it is not necessary to turn off your email client, all you need to do is disable notifications.  This is theoretically true ("does a tree falling in the forest interrupt you if you aren't notified?") but in actual practice I don't think it is the same.  It is just too easy to quickly alt-tab and check if you have email.  Just the temptation to do so might be disruptive.  One correspondent noted that he leaves Outlook running because it takes too long to launch.  If it takes too long to launch, you're launching it too often.  You don't want to be checking email when you're in the zone.  Really really.

Whenever you are not doing something which requires concentration, by all means, run your email client, run your IM client, have notifications turned on, take 'phone calls, the works.  But when you really need to get work done, turn everything off.  Isolate yourself.  Okay, enough about that.

Technical debates.  This was the single thing that generated the most objections from people.  My suggestion was don't get into prolonged technical debates in email, the key being "prolonged".  Obviously email is a terrific way for engineers to communicate, and a lot of problem solving does involve debate.  There can be a lot of productive back-and-forth among different people and this often iterates into the best solution.  But when no new information is being contributed, and people are just restating their positions - when the discussion thread is generating more heat than light - then it's time for a meeting.

BCC badness.  Quite a few people mentioned the evil potential of BCCs (blind copies).  I have to agree, there are rarely situations where a BCC is called for...  You should anticipate that everyone will find out who received a copy anyway.  My advice for avoiding BCC badness is as soon as it becomes apparent that things are going wrong, switch media - talk face-to-face, or on the 'phone.  That will tend to defuse things before they get out of hand.

I had some fascinating correspondence from several people about why email exacerbates negative emotions.  Did you know 90% of face-to-face communication is non-verbal?  Apparently 60% is body language, 30% is tone of voice, and only 10% is actual verbal content.  I find that amazing.  It certainly explains why phone calls are better than email for touchy subjects (40% vs. 10%) and why face-to-face is best (100% vs 40%).  And it explains the evolution of emoticons and other cues like boldface, colors, italics, and punctuation.  Anyway, email is terrific, but everyone agrees it does not work for criticism.

Three hours?  Proving that mine was primarily an audience of engineers, several people wanted to know where the number three came from...  Was there a study that proves this is the minimum interval?  Well, three hours is purely anecdotal, based on personal experience.  Your mileage may vary.  The central point was not three hours vs. two or four, it was that you need fairly long periods of uninterrupted time to be productive. 

Here's another reason for three, it kinds of "fits" into a workday.  For example, you get in at 8:30, check email, pick up voicemail, do all that.  Then you shut everything off and work for three hours, 'till say 12:30.  Now you break for lunch.  You get back at 1:30, check email, pick up voicemail, do all that.  Then you shut everything off and work for another three hours, 'till say 5:00.  Then you check email, pick up voicemail, play foosball, run around and bug everyone, etc.  You've had two nice periods of time to get work done.

{
I know, I know, this isn't real-world - it is a canonical example.  Nobody really does this every day, or even on any given day.  But my point is that this would be way more productive than taking interrupts all day long.
}

Nature of your work.  Maybe it wasn't obvious, but my comments were targeted at engineers and others who profit from uninterrupted periods of concentration to get work done.  If you're a customer support rep or a salesperson, this advice may not be for you.  { Unless of course you happen to be working on a "cheat sheet" to help your team with a prevalent problem, or writing a proposal to win a big deal. ;) }

Timely response.  Some people felt three hours does not constitute "timely response" to emails.  Obviously this can vary with the nature of your job.  There are certainly people whose responsibilities entail being more responsive than that.  Hopefully they are not engineers, however.  To restate the central point, engineers need fairly long periods of uninterrupted concentration to be productive.

I've managed people who had to balance technical support responsibility with development.  The best solution for such positions is to setup a rotation, such that some people are "on call" while others are not.  That enables some people to give timely support, while others are able to concentrate on development.

PA systems.  Amazingly, quite a few people reported that their office features PA systems.  I can't think of anything more annoying than periodic PA pages, you certainly have my sympathy.  Beyond lobbying to have the PA system disabled (or buying wire clippers), it seems the solution would be headphones and music.

Finally, if you ever want to abuse your personal productivity, post a semi-interesting article about productivity on the web.  Between deploying slashdot sunscreen, replying to interesting emails, and tracking down all the great sites linking to you from referer logs, it can easily cost you a week :)

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

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