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Vox Pop: Patterns for email as work conversation?

Inbox Zero is a system and philosophy that most benefits people who are overwhelmed by a high-volume of mystery meat email. The system works because it's stupid-simple, and the real art comes out of getting fast and ruthless at identifying requests for your time and attention that must be acknowledged or completed vs. the vast majority of stuff that needs very light attention (or can just get deleted).

But, not so fast -- what if, instead, you're receiving a high volume of easily identifiable messages? And what if your main "action" is reading, digesting, and then contributing? That's a bit trickier, as I have learned.

Every time I give the Inbox Zero talk to a tech-heavy group -- and most especially when I talk with engineers -- there's pushback on a couple issues. First, a lot of techies say they love it when everything gets routed through email, and second, they think an Inbox-Zero-type methodology isn't particularly useful for the type of communication that they get all day long. And that's conversations. Lots of conversations.

For many tech folks, email is the ideal and preferred way to avoid meetings and pointless flights. It's where they discuss features, debate implementation, and argue over the best solution to a problem. And that's how they like it. Some companies I visit with tell me they take pride in generating over 1000 person-messages each day. That's their culture, and love it or leave it.

This doesn't mean there's not room for improvement, but of course it's a valid and very real way to work.

Do stay tuned after the jump for your chance to join the conversation with comments and tips for managing conversational email, but first here's my observations on a few patterns that seem to work for a high volume of conversation based email:

  • Threading - you benefit greatly from an email app that lets you view messages grouped by conversation. This makes it easy to focus on one discussion as well as leap ahead as needed without distratction
  • Processing - Regardless of your style, I think it's still very valuable to process to zero on a regular basis, pulling out all the non-conversational emails that can be converted to action or immediately deleted. (more on processing email)
  • Filtering - It still seems valuable to identify lists and conversations that need less attention (or just don't need attention right now) so that you can keep them from grabbing you away from the nitty gritty. (more on filtering email)
  • Standards (esp. on subject and quoting) - Having a "house style" that your team agrees to use for subject lines and quoting will save you much heartache. If you've ever had to catch up on the latest additions to a three-week-old, high-volume thread, you'll instantly know whether everyone was on the same page.
  • Muting - I love mute functionality like that found in GMail. Basically, this let's you say "this is a conversation I don't need to follow any more," and new messages in the thread are archived automatically
  • Save and Search - Short, attachment-free, well-quoted messages make archiving and search a less-than-typical pain, so you can feel fine about saving old messages for as long as they remian useful to you. Then you can just pull them up via search as needed for historical purposes.

The Question to You

If your job requires you to keep up with a very high-volume of conversation email, please share your favorite tricks. Is the high-volume list-based system working for you? What helps you keep on top of things? What bits of Inbox Zero do and don’t help? If you could change one thing about the way your team handles email conversations today, what would it be?

CityLifeImages.com's picture

Inbox Zero seems to be "Profession Neutral"...

As a recent convert to the "Inbox Zero" (My term: "In=0") approach as an offshoot of my GTD system, I'm not sure I follow how In=0 is "too" anything to not work for specific given profession.

Some background: I'm involved with two businesses, one is running a software company and the second is photography related. For both of my "identities", In=0 works well.

My approach is to have @Action folders for each of my businesses (one set for each) and an archive folder for each of the businesses on my Mac PowerBook, along with using Daylite for GTD. The conversations that I have in each of my lives are not very similar, but neither seems more, or less suited to In=0.

The only difference between leaving your Inbox filled with email and it being "classified" in to an Action folder is where (or how) you'll look to find something. As a user of both Mac and Windows in my office, I've found that I can search easily and find past threads, messages, etc.

Backing up what other posters have said, there are times where I think email becomes counter-productive to forward progress and breaking off the thread to phone or "person-to-person" mode seems most appropriate. My experience is that IM also nicely reduces inbound email flow, thus, effectively handles some issues more quickly.





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