214 - Inbox Zero

Yet again the Guardian’s Long Read has sparked a response from me. Not yet enough to subscribe, but I’m steadily closer. This time it is Oliver Burkeman on the topic of email and how we do (or don’t) handle it. I quote a chunk so as to set the scene:

The eternal human struggle to live meaningfully in the face of inevitable death entered its newest phase one Monday in the summer of 2007, when employees of Google gathered to hear a talk by a writer and self-avowed geek named Merlin Mann. Their biggest professional problem was email, the digital blight that was colonising more and more of their hours, squeezing out time for more important work, or for having a life. And Mann, a rising star of the “personal productivity” movement, seemed like he might have found the answer.

He called his system “Inbox Zero” [link inserted], and the basic idea was simple enough. Most of us get into bad habits with email: we check our messages every few minutes, read them and feel vaguely stressed about them, but take little or no action, so they pile up into an even more stress-inducing heap. Instead, Mann advised his audience that day at Google’s Silicon Valley campus, every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically “process to zero”. Clarify the action each message requires – a reply, an entry on your to-do list, or just filing it away. Perform that action. Repeat until no emails remain. Then close your inbox, and get on with living.

Which, it seems to me, says that the task of dealing with mail is to be given some attention, wholly rather than partially. I covered many of my issues with this sort of thing in explaining why it is I hate the phone. In brief, it is because the phone interrupts whatever it is you are doing. Worse, there is at least a partial assumption on the part of the caller that you have nothing better to do than chat on their topic of choice. An email resolves this issue, allowing one to deal with it when ready – and to do so completely.
But all those who are forever twitching at their phones have somehow decided that the email is far more like the phone call, requiring an instant response. This is NOT what it is for and everyone who treats email like that is in error. Both those that send email when an instant response is needed (wrong medium) and those who see the immediacy as important (again, wrong medium and, probably the wrong sort of response). Mail, being written and so taken as record, needs to be quite a bit more complete that the spoken word. No doubt this is exactly why some businesses would far rather use oral methods, committing the minimum possible to written forms. Fair enough, and appropriate in context. Mail should therefore include attempts at completeness and at non-ambiguity. This may make it longer (more immediate work) than you are used to writing.

However, having experimented at length with this while working abroad, I can now claim that, for the most part, the written form is actually quicker in reaching positive results than the oral methods. Mostly this is because people are actually pretty slow at thinking and far faster at working the mouth, so oral meetings with zero preparation are strongly ineffective. Unless, of course, you consider it important to persuade people into your line of thinking. I far prefer people to come up with their own thinking, though I’m not above a little steering if I think it will help. That became the distinction between what I thought appropriate for a meeting and for an email. I used email for factual content, which would include what we might call office history, minutes, recorded opinion and so on. Reaching collective decisions calls for oral meetings but the email prepares the ground so as little as possible is new. Then opinions can be aired with less of the change that occurs with the first expressed opinion (because they have arrived at an opinion earlier). If you like being surrounded by yes-men, you won’t do that. I have long felt that a business will work better if all opinions are heard, voiced and appreciated. Then when a business decision is reached it may reflect consensus but it does recognise that the other opinions have been heard and it just might explain why the action is taken (and that the boss is taking responsibility for the result, so just perhaps the staff will support making it work).

Suggested routines:
• Mail is attended to at fixed times.
• Each mail is responded to, or moved to an equivalent to the Action List.
• Use colour, tags,, flags and labels as supplied by your emailer
• Put mail in files.
• Don’t be afraid to delete stuff.

Which, you might think, is a long way from how to treat an email. Yet it is the purpose of email that should be driving how we deal with it. Do you think email is somehow different from what paper mail was 50 years ago? If so, why is that?


When I was at college, back in the Stone Age,  mail internal to the university would easily produce a reply in the same day and sometimes a second exchange. My grandmother expected letter mail to provide same day replies to local mail, e.g. an invitation to lunch tomorrow. Or in her case, golf.

We can use email as pretty immediate communication but the principle here is that the mail is dealt with at your convenience. In my world, if your response time is too quick, you haven’t got enough to do. Social media posts are already clearly different from email, but I wonder what it is that is served by this persistent insistent and near-continuous checking of phones. It seems to me that this advertises not having enough to do of any import or value. But then I felt the same when I was myself at school – the social elements were, to me, largely empty, vacuous meaningless exchanges that would be better served by some forethought. I feel the same when watching a lot of television and that is probably why I enjoy well scripted exchanges.


Perhaps, as the Guardian suggests, the issue at heart is to do with personal productivity or time management. I agree, but these are inherently personal issues to deal with unless and until they impact upon employment. I am against the use of social media while at work; I always felt that personal phone calls while at work were wrong (and for that lost time to be compensated); I have always felt that work time should be for exactly that, preferably productive work. If there is insufficient work to be productive, then more needs to be found (or go home).
For some, this is not a task management problem at all but a stress problem to alleviate. That is beyond me. Spot an issue and deal with it. If you can't deal with it right now, put it in a place where you can deal with it. Worry is only concern that there is something you should have done; this demands resolution. I have seen occasions where the failure to find resolution is the source of stress and this too I do not understand.
have to be done immediately. I am of the opinion that if I decide to read a mail then I am accepting that I will deal with it, at least partially, at the time of reading. Otherwise it is wiser by far to not read it.
There was a parallel situation when teaching: to encourage internal communication among busy people one had a pigeon-hole. Into this went all sorts of mail; external mail, internal mail, notes recording a phone call from outside, even occasionally, junk – equivalents to all the mail one now receives electronically. The usual habit was to go process this pigeon-holed stuff every time one went into the common room (or wherever the pigeon-holes were sited). But some of this demanded immediate attention, mostly because you were located beside the pigeon-holes at the time. The most irritating conversation started with “I’ve just put <thing> in your pigeon-hole”. So you want to discuss it blind? You want an answer now? You’re an important person who needs an ego massaging? You’re saying ‘Hurry up’? Or are you really saying no more than “I’ve done something today”? The equivalent is to write email and then get on the phone to say “I’ve sent you a mail”. Stupid, unproductive and (worse) dragging someone else down to the same level of non-productivity.

Which really amounts to a plea for people to use the appropriate medium for their messages, doesn’t it?

I have little use for chatter. I wonder why that is? Could it be that the content level is (too often) too low to justify attention? The extended family is often accused of moving the specific to the general or the abstract and for doing that (too) quickly. But what is the point of, for example, moaning about something unless you are prepared to do something about it? Which in many cases would be the response [“What are you going to do about it?”], although the verb might change to reflect possibility – and, at this point there is a conversation worth having; a problem is identified and exploration of responses is in hand. The classic one in the staff common room would be a moan about some child; until the moaner reached a point at which there was any contemplated action, this was not communication and could have equally well been held with a statue. Thus the common room worth being a member of had reached a point where the child-specific moan rapidly moved to a discussion of, perhaps (i) that child’s issues, IEP, recommended actions or (ii) that teacher’s issues with that lesson (or approach, or style) or (iii) some external event that caused friction between pupil and teacher. All of these are larger than the single issue but are more likely to produce resolution, particularly avoidance of a repeated event. That, to my way of thinking, is what a common room is for. It is also what productive communication is for.

Maybe that is the point?

DJS 20170105 
top pic from focus ratings

While there is a lot written about time management, there is a growing consensus (a vague term indicating I found more than one person happy to write about it) that the more efficient you are, the more work there is for you to do. I suggest that the proverbial ‘busy person’ does indeed attract more work, from those who are working less efficiently indirectly and from those whose response to everything is simply to move it off their ‘desk’, perhaps merely by asking questions. This too is a recognised way of looking good while doing little. Which brings us, yet again back to the measures of success. What continues to bother me about all of this is that there is an implied lack of trust that the personnel involved have the interests of the company at heart. Far too much literature says I am a fool to even wish for this. Yet I say that is the role of the leadership and, in turn it is part of their role to find leaders. Which in turn suggests that the current enlightened attitudes that pursue more holistic goals are indeed onto something. When people enjoy their work they are productive; that then leaves management to wonder whether this production is useful. I continue to wonder why so many managers are paid huge sums of money for failing to manage. I suspect that the level at which politics comes into play is the same level at which job descriptions fail to match the behaviour of those employees. that may also be the point at which an individual can no longer do the jobs of those below.  Further reading might include this as a stimulus.

I am convinced that continuous pressure drives out an ability to think. Occasional pressure strikes me as healthy, but so does the ability to reflect (rather than react). If we are terribly efficient we cannot react to change; in turn that suggests there is a cost to having flexibility, even to simply having flexibility available. Question then: do the ‘busy’ people you know exhibit an inability to reflect, too? If so, are they being busy so as to avoid having to think about other matters such as what they are doing with their lives? In the end, this individual problem is the same as the one in the workplace; the people problem is the same as the personnel one and the personal one. Which, I suggest, means that you might as well sort out your own life, for whatever strategies you adopt should apply just as well to work, too. If they do, then you have a life that is consistent in its behaviour and you might find this a source of happiness; If they don’t, you’re either being schizoid (not necessarily a bad thing) by compartmentalising your needs and wants – many people call this a ‘ ob' rather than a ‘career'. As the spectre of automation looms over us, we’re going to need to find more adaptable positions and wider skill sets so as to stay in productive employment.

 However, © David Scoins 2017