Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Status emailicus

My day is spent running meetings - staff meetings, steering committee meetings, and various kinds of national/regional/local governance bodies.

Over the past year I have noticed a trend in all these meetings. The number of emails that people receive each day exceeds their ability to respond to them, so they develop "status emailicus" - a bit like status epilepticus (persistent seizures) but it involves retrieving a blackberry, iPhone, or other mobile device from its holster every 15 seconds throughout the meeting.

The end result is continuous partial attention. You'd like to believe that everyone is participating in the discussion, especially if complex issues are being debated. Ideally, when consensus is achieved, everyone leaves the meeting marching to the same tune. However, by multi-tasking in meetings, we see every other frame of the movie. We miss the subtleties of conversation and critical details that may later turn into deal breakers.

How do we solve this problem?

We could throw away our mobile devices, but that ignores their positive aspects. My travel to Washington is possible because I can use my mobile device for command and control of all the projects I'm running, even while in planes, trains, and automobiles.

One option is to reset expectations. Email is not the same as Instant Messaging. A 5 minute response time throughout the day only works if there are no meetings to attend.

Another option is to realize that we all work 8 hours a day in meetings/calls and 8 hours in email. We could limit meetings to 30 minutes in duration - enough time for efficient discussion, but not too long to result in overwhelming email backlog. Following each 30 minute meeting, we could get a 30 minute recess to act on decisions made and catch up on emails.

As I've mentioned in my Open Access Scheduling for Administrators blog, I'm trying to reserve 50% of my time to address the issues that arise each day. Maybe that will reduce my need to check email during meetings.

The bottom-line is that email overload exists and we can

a. Ignore it and hope it goes away
b. Continue to let email run our lives and distract our every waking moment
c. Take control and organize our email responses by reserving a part of each day, outside of meetings, for timely email responses.

I already sense that people are beginning to rethink the way they manage connectedness. Twitter's popularity is decreasing, Instant Messaging is on the wane, and social networks seem less of an obsession.

I welcome your thoughts - just don't email me :-).


Anonymous said...

E-mail is mail. It is asynchronous.

If something needs an answer in the next 2 hours, then pick up the phone and call. If something needs to get done today, then mark your email urgent, but don't expect a response in the next 2 hours.

If you're scheduling a meeting and it needs to be cancelled, or moved, then certainly send an email, but respect the delay that should be inherent in using *mail*.

Bernz said...

I've always thought that this would be the next "killer app": a method by which messages of all sorts are intelligently sorted based on business rules set by a user. That way only TRUE priorities ever get forwarded to the PDA and the rest are organized and answered at leisure. Let the computer do time management for you. It might take time to "train" these kinds of programs (as my experience with NLP leads me to believe) but once trained, they can be effective in organizing and forwarding.

I think we're seeing the beginning of this with Wave and xobni. There's more to do, certainly, but I think it'll happen.

Italo MacĂȘdo said...

Glad I'm not that popular!!

Seriously, the third option seems to be the most appropriate answer or there's a gap for a new mobile device to be invented that we haven't figured out.

Maybe a device that delivers the message in a proper "interruption time to interrupt you". Just like the medical domain, we need to interrupt the physician sometimes, but we don't do it every five minutes just because of any simple thing that comes up.

Peter Kelley said...

Merlin Man did a great series of articles on email management called inbox zero ( The basics are:

1. Divide email time into sweeping and processing. Sweeping is where you get all of the todos out of your email and processing is where you do them.
2. Only sweep your emial at most once an hour.
3. Educate the people you email that you won't respond immediately.

Keith W. Boone said...

I send out my e-mail address and my cell phone number on just about every e-mail message I write. I tell people that if you need immediate response you must call me. I don't recieve e-mails on my phone, and don't ever want to, for just the reasons you cited.

Nathan Zeldes said...

"One option is to reset expectations [for instant response]" - very true and desirable; but this is not an individual's call; you need to have the entire organization on board with the new, relaxed response time agreement. This is very hard to achieve - at Intel I once ran an experiment where the managers of a group of engineers decreed a 24 hour response window for all but urgent emails, yet their subordinates ignored this completely. The 24x7 connectedness culture is ingrained and hard to change... not impossible perhaps, but prepare for some serious leadership and role modeling.