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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?

bewst's picture

Missing Email Feature

Let me start by saying that I'm as aware as anyone of the pitfalls of thinking more technology can help solve these kinds of problems, but in this case I am convinced that it can, at least for me. The problem, in short, is that once I've deleted/archived/whatever a message to get my inbox to zero, I can't get back to that message from future messages in the same thread.

All emails are conversational to some degree; it isn't uncommon for me to get a reply from someone that drops enough original context for me to understand it... or maybe, to follow up, I'll need a link that was in an earlier message (or, for those of you who like the "business-style" top-posting idiom where every message contains the entire foregoing conversation, an attachment). So there's a strong disincentive to delete messages from my inbox. My ideal client would archive messages when I hit delete, but would allow me to pull up an entire thread and/or nearby messages in the same thread as any message, no matter where the other messages have been filed (I'd like to extend this to threads that move to/from email, mailing lists, and newsgroups, but let's not get greedy -- yet).

The closest I ever got to this was by using Gnus (an emacs mail/news mode). I had it set up to normally show only unread or flagged messages, and throw read, unflagged messages out of my inbox after a few months. Gnus has this great feature that allows me to step backwards in a thread, showing earlier messages, and to display a whole thread... as long as all the messages are in the same mailbox.

But Gnus, for various reasons, causes as much pain as it saves, and I need to use other clients from time to time, which means that I confront thousands of messages when I use some other clients (iPhone in particular has no filtered views). So now I'm trying to get to Inbox Zero and living with the frustration of not being able to easily go back in time when I need to.

Obviously I'm not the only person thinking this way: https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=229568




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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