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Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Vox Populi

Your Story: Throwing new tools at a communication problem?

I'm working on a (likely non-43 Folders) piece about a topic that seems to keep coming up whenever I talk with people about how their team plans, collaborates, and generally communicates with one another. I'd love to hear from you in comments if you have a contribution to make.

What’s your story?

Do you have a story about a time when your team or company tried to solve a human communication problem by adding a new tool? In your estimation, how did things turn out?


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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:

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Vox Populi: Reasons to Quit

I have a lot of trouble keeping track of what I'm supposed to be doing. It's not that I necessarily have trouble prioritizing my tasks or scheduling things - I mean I do, but that's not the main problem.

The main problem is that I've got too many things I really need (want) to do - too many long-term projects with potential - and I'm never exactly sure when they're a few weeks away from a grand payoff and when they're just wasting my time.

I suppose this is a crisis of faith.

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Vox Pop: Workflow for the Fujitsu ScanSnap?

In comments about yesterday's "Making friends with paper" post, I was reminded by 43f member Adam Hooks...

A couple months ago, on a MBW episode, Merlin, you recommended some scanner/pdf solutions and you said you would elaborate on that on 43f at some point. I thought this was related to reducing your reliance on paper. How did your scanning experiment go?

Adam remembers correctly that I purchased and preliminarily fiddled with the Fujitsu ScanSnap S500M for OS X (Info, Amazon). It's a small-footprint, high-speed document scanner that a lot of people have been talking about lately. I'd read so many reviews and blog posts about how easy it is to use that I was intoxicated by the dream of a life -- if not without paper storage -- where I could at least try to minimize my unnecessary paper clutter and start making document archiving easier and more searchable.

Given the not inconsiderable cost of the unit, I'm embarrassed to say that I got busy with other stuff and haven't yet returned to using the ScanSnap in any automated way.

Doesn't mean I'm not interested or haven't gotten started...

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Vox Pop: What's on your iPhone app wish list?

Now that Steve has announced there's an iPhone/iPod Touch SDK coming in February, what's at the top of your application wish list?

The Question to You

What’s the first application for iPhone you’d like to see? Where’s the biggest hole in your iPhone world right now?

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Vox Pop: Re-creating scarcity

I have a friend who told me he was thinking about giving his project managers a weekly pile of chips that could be redeemed for person-hours in meetings. So, to schedule firewalled, group face-time, the PM would need to cough up the equivalent number of tokens from her pile. Thus, one, long, all-hands meeting might require the whole week's stack. While, fewer, shorter meetings with smaller groups made the pile go further.

It was just an idea, and I'm pretty sure he never implemented it, but I think it's a fascinating concept. Why? Because I love the idea of re-introducing scarcity into systems that lack boundaries.

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Vox Pop: Email via web CRM?

Most businesses and an increasing number of people (including me) are looking for friction-free ways for teams to deal with incoming public email accounts. Whether you're managing a home eBay company, fielding FAQs, or reviewing incoming resumes, it seems like there must be some good, lightweight web apps for teams to use and collaborate around.

Ron Richards just pointed me to Cerberus, and I've previously looked at DayLite, MailTank, and Sugar. I like the trouble-ticket approach in some ways, but I also wish it could be prettied up -- ideally including remote form submission from your own domains.

The Question to You:

Have you found a free or inexpensive web-based app that helps your teams manage incoming email and convert them into assigned tasks? Got one that’s great at template-based responses? Anything with the power of a support ticket app that’s a bit prettier from the user’s standpoint?

edit 2007-08-27 09:17:40: Shoulda mentioned: relevant self-links are okay on this one.

Vox Pop: What default settings would you change?

As I am wont to do, I was thinking out loud on Twitter this morning.

Twitter message: 'I wonder how different the world might look if the default 'new meeting' time in calendar programs were 10 minutes instead of 1 hour'

I'm convinced that, for better or worse, a lot of computer-related habits come straight out of using the default settings. For example a stock Mail.app install checks your email every 5 minutes (I reset mine to 'Manual') and, without interdiction, Apple's mail program will also create all your new messages as "Rich Text" (Nuh uh. Mine? 'Plain Text').

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Vox Pop: Your best "best practice" for email?

Short Subject: Now You're Talking (1927)

prosaic [on email]

Chris Streeter picks up on a thread that I've been thinking about a lot lately (and he's kind to mention the relationship to Inbox Zero).

He reminds us that the etiquette for using a telephone was once well-established enough to earn a place in the encyclopedia:

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Vox Pop: Managing actions from list emails?

Inbox Zero Tech Talk

During the Q&A portion of my Inbox Zero presentation at Google the other day, an audience member stumped me with a question about how to manage action around mailing list distributions (the question starts at about 48:22).

He said he frequently receives email requests and questions that are also distributed to the other 20 people on his team. He describes a "waiting game" in which team members hang back to see if other people will respond first -- at least partly out of not wanting to duplicate effort or flood the sender. I thought it was a really intriguing question, although I said (and still believe) that distributed email would not personally be my first choice to handle this kind of communication.

Well, based on the reaction in the room that day, I gathered that this is a common dilemma for Googlers. Funny thing is that, since the video went up, I've received a lot of email from people outside the Googleplex who share the same problem -- a few of whom were aghast that I wasn't aware what a huge pain this is for knowledge workers. And to an extent, I'll admit those folks were mostly right.

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An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

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