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Health warning: email

I have come to the conclusion that email is bad for my health...

First of all, email is just efficient enough as a system of communication to allow people to rattle off whatever happens to be in their heads without indulging in a bit of review and rewriting. How many of our emails - those we send and those we receive - are badly written, containing half-formed thoughts and badly specified actions?

Secondly, because email is more or less guaranteed to be delivered properly, senders assume that an email sent is definitive and, as such, is a sufficient method of delegating work. In my experience, this management-by-proxy actually displaces proper management processes.

Thirdly, because we live in an instant-on world, people assume that emails are delivered almost instantly and often expect a reply, or another result, instantly as well. Yesterday, I stopped looking at my email for an hour or so in the morning. In that time, two separate people said to me, "did you get that email I sent you?"

All of these things make it difficult to integrate email into any GTD practice...

First of all, one email never contains one action. Emails have to be scanned and interpreted to check whether a) they contain any actions at all and b) to extract which actions and which contexts are involved. This means that we are effectively doing the planning on behalf of the sender!

Also, because of the speed that emails are sent and received, we are often expected to check our mailboxes at very short intervals. This would be ok if we were simply scanning emails but, in terms of GTD, emails are stuff, which means that we must process them properly and completely. The whole point of processing in GTD is to clear the decks, gather proper actions and free up time to get on with real work. While we are constantly checking emails and processing them, we never get any time for the latter.

As you may have guessed, I have been having some trouble managing my email with GTD. Yesterday, I started work on a two-stage processing method that would allow me to scan my inbox often and defer processing of 'interesting' emails till later. It looked something like:

. If the email will take less than two minutes to do, do it.
. If it looks interesting at all, file it under 'for processing'.
. Otherwise, delete it.

The idea was that, several times a day I would do proper GTD processing on my 'for processing' folder, generating actions, calender entries, new projects and filing for reference as usual. Sounds reasonable in theory but, in practice, it was pretty overwhelming. The fact that I knew there were many unprocessed emails sitting somewhere meant that I found it difficult to feel free enough to get on with work. In effect, I still had 'stuff' hanging over me.

So what is the solution? I am gradually coming round to the conclusion that I will have to take some radical steps.

. Check and process my email three times a day: once first thing in the morning, once around midday and once near the end of the afternoon to catch really urgent items that cannot wait till the next day.

. Let my fellow workers know that this is happening, so that they do not expect instant replies, instant decisions or instant results.

. Train myself not to look at my inbox outwith my 'processing' times and trust that all of the emails I receive will be handled in good time.

I think that this will be exteremely difficult. However, it is interesting to ask why it will be so difficult? It is not because my work is so critical that the business will fail if I do not action emails immediately. I think it is purely a social phenomenon: we have trained ourselves, like Pavlov's dog, to respond to incoming emails immediately and, as a result, we expect the same when we send emails to other people.

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An Oblique Strategy:
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