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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?

taglia's picture

Inbox Zero, literally

It took some time for me to find a good workflow to manage email, but finally I got it. The main issue I encountered was on the conversations: because of my job, I need to be informed of a lot of things, and email conversation can go on for more than one week. Although it is easy to decide if a message is actionable, must be kept for reference or can be deleted, the problem is timing, especially for the third category: many messages are important now, and must be kept for reference, but they will be meaningless in some time. True, I could simply archive those messages with the others, the disk space is not an issue today, but there is always that bad feeling of useless stuff growing for no reasons.

For me the solution is to have an additional category, a buffer if you want, that I know will be deleted in some time. At last my Inbox is always empty at the end of the day. All the messages go to a single archive folder, some tagged as "removein5weeks"; all actionable items go to the GTD application immediately, so there is no need to keep them in the Inbox. During the weekly review, I open a smart folder which shows all the messages tagged "removein5weeks" and which have been in the system for more than five weeks, and I delete everything. The five weeks frame works for me, but it could be different.

I am a Mac user, and I have implemented the workflow using Mail.app, MailTags, and MailActOn. When I process my Inbox I have three shortcuts:

  • Send the message to the GTD application (OmniFocus for me);
  • Move the message to the archive folder, for reference;
  • Move the message to the archive folder, AND add the tag "removein5weeks".

For the first time I know that my email program only contains new messages, things that I could search in the future, and nothing more. No more bad feelings looking at the thousands of messages stacked in the Inbox, no more fear of forgetting the only important message in there, because I didn't act immediately on it.




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