I’ve been thinking a lot about communication recently. One of my biggest personal challenges is managing the various communication sources in my life. Email, text, phone, twitter, facebook, etc.. They are all inboxes that need to be managed and generally stress me out. But as my world has grown more complicated I’ve realized that there’s a great power to understanding the differences between them and developing a respect for how others use what they use.
A few thoughts.
Email is our best worst enemy. It’s not necessarily designed to do what we do with it today but it’s a very useful asynchronous communication tool. No matter what we’re doing right now, email queues and we can take the time to properly read and respond to everything when our minds are ready. By waiting to respond we’re demonstrating to our recipients that we care enough about the conversation to put some real thought into it. Of course that all breaks apart when we wait too long to respond. What email is *not* good for is time-sensitive, “I’m at the movies where are you” messages. For that we have…
SMS is for urgent communication. Something like, “I’m here where are you” or “we’re leaving in a few minutes.” It’s not made for long dissertations or basically anything over 140 characters. That’s what email is for. We aren’t trained nor do our tech tools facilitate handling a queue of text messages. So when you send a long text to someone that they can’t deal with immediately or something that requires a ton of thought, they’re very likely to forget you sent it if they are not, at that moment, in a position to deal with it. So by attempting to bypass a potentially long email queue, you can actually do worse for yourself by texting.
Phone. Calling someone unscheduled is presumptuous. The average person spends a total of 30 minutes/day in the bathroom (btw, that’s a huge number). That means from 8am to 8pm you have a 4% chance of calling someone while they are in the bathroom. Add in the time people are meetings or when they are working and can’t easily breakaway to answer a phone and you can see that calling is a huge gamble. When you call someone unscheduled you’re basically telling them whatever they are doing is less important than what you want. If you saw the same person in a deep conversation at a coffee shop would you walk up and prod them until the respond?
Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIn. These methods are inherently tied to email but not always. Twitter is like SMS. When you receive a direct message or a reply it queues but not in the way email does. Facebook inconsistently emails messages and LinkedIn can be such a spammer that it’s hard to differentiate between messages and product announcements. Generally I like to avoid communicating personal messages on any of these platforms because I simply don’t know how the person I’m communicating with uses them.
How I’m dealing with it.
I’ve reached a point where during business hours I can receive 70 emails an hour (560/day). I don’t work regular business hours but a lot of my partners do, so the days can be killer. I’ve started sifting through email several times a day as a batch process, responding to emails immediately that take 30 seconds or less, archiving random ones and moving thought-needing ones to a processing folder (I call it Time). Then I move to the Time folder and actually do work. I move task-oriented communication to Flow and move on.
What’s nice about that is that when I’m in the Time folder I can’t see the mounting inbox so I’m not distracted. I work a bit, clear the queue as best I can.
The points of failure are:
- Emails that are time-sensitive and better suited for text messages. I’m compelled to check email more regularly because there are a few people who send me messages like “Lunch in 20 minutes?” Since I’m afraid to miss those, I check compulsively and get stressed.
- Text messages that should be emails cause huge issues. If I’m trying concentrate, receiving a huge text or something that doesn’t meet the above is killer.
- Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn. I just don’t use them. Once a week a contractor I hired on ODesk receives them all, filters out the spam and sends me a summary.
Out of these processes and thinking about the points of failure, I’ve come up with a a few rules to test:
- Process email only at select intervals throughout the day. My schedule changes too often so I’m not going to do the 10am & 3pm thing, but I can’t spend my whole day in my inbox.
- Ask, plead, beg people not to send text messages that shouldn’t be text messages.
- Tell everyone (including you) to add an astrerisk or “URGENT” to any email that needs immediate attention (and hope the honor system applies). I’ve set a trigger to send me a text message anytime one of them comes through so I jump on it immediately.
- Ask teams that I work with to code emails with project codes, simple ones, so emails about high-priority projects get filtered easily to get the attention they deserve. For example, for a widget project, the code may be WID so that every subject line about that project includes WID. Diverse teams don’t always agree on collaboration tools like Basecamp but this method can apply universally.
I have no idea if this is useful or if it sounds bitchy. But I think it’s worth trying. Any thoughts?