The case for email hashtags

Better subject lines make for better emails. We take that as a given (even if we practice it too little).

Now we can make email subject lines even more useful—by using hashtags.

It’s been just over a year since I first proposed the idea of email hashtags. Since then, the idea has been enthusiastically embraced at a conference sponsored by the Information Overload Research Group (see the video of my presentation). It’s gaining traction as a way to help others—and ourselves—manage incoming email messages. (See this short video from technology consultant Chris Pirillo.)

According to the New York Times, even the “inventor” of Twitter hashtags—Chris Messina—is using them in email:

. . .  when Chris Messina, a developer advocate at Google, wanted to introduce two friends over e-mail, he wrote #Introduction in the subject line. No need, he explained, for a long preamble when a quick, to-the-point hashtag would do.

Then again, Mr. Messina is no ordinary Twitter user. The self-described “hash godfather,” he officially invented the Twitter hashtag in August 2007, when he sent out a Twitter message suggesting that the pound symbol be used for organizing groups on Twitter. (For example, if attendees at the South by Southwest music and technology conference all add #sxsw to their messages, they can more easily search and sort themselves on Twitter.) Though the idea took awhile to catch on, it quickly snowballed—on Twitter and offline.

Now there’s a website for email hashtags (emailhashtags.org). If the idea sounds intriguing, pay it a visit. It takes less than two minutes to read. And it could change the way you think about email.

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From soldiers to knowledge workers: Overloaded 2012 covers spectrum of challenges

Attendees at Overloaded 2012 in San FranciscoThe recent daylong get-together of information overload experts and solution-seekers in San Francisco yielded a rich harvest of insights. (The Feb. 25 conference was sponsored by the Information Overload Research Group. For a summary of the morning keynote by Dr. David Levy, see previous post.)

The military on overload—Col. Pete Marksteiner, an Air Force public affairs officer, is trying to focus more of the military’s attention on information overload. Military doctrine says the ability of the U.S. to achieve its objectives depends on its effectiveness in employing “the instruments of national power”—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. Marksteiner said battles can be lost due to distractions, interruptions, and urgency over effectiveness. “If these things adversely influence the way people receive, process, interpret and use data, they’re a threat to national security,” he said. The 9/11 Commission concluded the U.S. has poor systems for processing information. Marksteiner is recommending to the Air Force Science Advisory Board that the military look at the problem carefully and leverage expertise available to help solve it.

Five seconds to decide—Christina Randle, CEO of The Effective Edge, said professionals must handle 225 inputs per day (deciding what to do with them in 5 seconds or less). Her company provides tools and techniques that have reduced stress, improved work/life balance, decreased interruptions, and improved deadline performance. However, she said, challenges are looming: “We’ve mastered the tools for individual effectiveness. Now we have to work in teams. We’re moving from email to collaboration. And IT is not focused on learning.”

The new inbox—Pierre Khawan, CEO of People on the Go, describes email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as “the new inbox.” His research shows that only 20 percent of people have a workable strategy for handling all the incoming messages. Khawan has developed a framework in which people switch from the “accomplishment zone” (where individual tasks get done) to the “collaboration zone” (for email, networking, etc.). He’s posted a variety of free and low-cost information at People on the Go.

Jonathan Spira, CEO of BasexAwareness begets reduction—Jonathan Spira, CEO of Basex and author of Overload!, said one underlying problem is that “we don’t have a management science for the knowledge era. We’re using the approaches from the industrial age. Gatherings like this will help forge the management science.” Spira said the amount of time knowledge workers can spend on thought and reflection—the highest value they can add—is now down to 5% of their day. What’s driving information overload is “an exaggerated sense of what’s urgent and important.”

Bad habits continue to prevail: 62 percent of knowledge workers at one energy company open emails within 10 minutes, and 32 percent expected a response within an hour. “Reasonable service level expectations would help.” A key new finding: “Simply telling people there’s a problem reduced information overload by 10 percent. You’re helping to reduce it by writing about it.”

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Overloaded 2012: New energy around solving the overload problem

Overloaded  audience 2Would you give up a Saturday to help reduce information overload? On February 25, nearly 30 people—from academia, industry, consulting and the military—did just that.

They gathered at the PariSoma Innovation Loft in San Francisco for a day of presentations, discussions and brainstorming organized by the Information Overload Research Group. (I’m a founding director.)

Dr. David Levy, professor at the University of Washington’s Information School, said information overload represents “a constellation of current cultural concerns” that include busyness, fragmentation of attention (as in multitasking) and acceleration (where results are expected sooner).

He compared the overload challenge to the environmental movement, which “started with the awareness that something is out of balance with our relationship to the natural world.” He said many aspects of environmentalism—including research, education, policy setting, technology development and changes in social practices—also apply to information overload.

Contemplative multitasking—Dr. Levy and two associates conducted an experiment with 50 HR people in Seattle and San Francisco. They divided them into three groups (a control group, a group that received training in meditation, and a group that was taught body relaxation). Before and after the training, they had “lifelike multitasking experiences”—trying to write a memo while experiencing a multitude of interruptions. The meditators reported being less stressed after the training, and they also spent more “connected time” on single tasks. “They actually strengthened their ability not to pay attention to something and to stay with something,” said Levy. “It shows the mind can be trained to ignore input and be less taken away by distractions.”

Overloaded  David LevyUndergraduate overload—“We’ve been assuming the ‘born digital’ generation has it handled,” said Levy (at right in photo), but research is finding that’s not so. Levy described an experiment at Georgetown University and the University of Washington in which students abstained from a technological practice for up to three days (i.e., turn off your smart phone, stay off Facebook, etc.). Typical comments: “I felt like I was more engaged in the world,” “You can’t compare texting to being with someone,” and “We grew up in a culture that was very multitasking-oriented—where time out is a punishment. Students should learn when they’re young how to calm down and be focused.”

“I think they’re actually looking for help,” Levy said. “It’s a real opportunity for cross-generational dialogue—and it isn’t happening. There are real opportunities for the older and younger generation to learn from each other.”

Mindful awareness—In classrooms and workshops, Levy is attempting to help people be more deliberately conscious of their information practices. They discover, for instance, that the impulse to check email is often tied to boredom or anxiety—then construct personal guidelines that they share with the group.
“The challenge we face is not just unplugging in order to recover our sense of balance and well being, but it’s understanding how we can be online and be balanced,” Levy said. “This requires understanding of self as well as technology design.”

Coming next:  More insights from the Overloaded 2012 conference.

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We’re #1!

The Financial Post has made it official . . . in a column by Vancouver-based success and productivity coach Ray Williams: “The volume of emails and reliance on them for communication in organizations is becoming more acute and dysfunctional, and information overload is now the No. 1 problem in organizations.”

New York research firm Basex has been tracking the cost of that problem for years. The current total: $997 billion a year (and that’s just in the U.S.).

Meanwhile, at Harvard Business Review, contributing editor Amy Gallo suggests a method for dealing with email that’s too seldom discussed—individual responsibility! She makes the case that radical restrictions on email (being implemented by Atos and Volkswagen) aren’t really necessary.

What’s best about her article (“Stop Email Overload“) is this: It’s not “8 Simple Rules for Solving Your Email Problems,” but a thoughtful approach to attacking root causes. It also links to other helpful HBR articles on managing email, emptying your inbox, and deciding when to email—and when to talk face-to-face or by phone.

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Has information overload reached a turning point?

I’ve long felt that information overload is a temporary condition. I know it’s hard to think that way when you’re coping with a mountain of emails and Google search results.

But I’m getting the sense that we’ve reached an important milestone in the trajectory of information overload. That perhaps we’ve crested the mountain and are starting to go down the other side.

I’m hearing less about the stress and angst that IO creates and more about solutions—techniques and technologies that people are actually trying. In many cases, they’re feeling more productive and efficient. Not to mention less harried.

Clay Shirky has famously said that information overload is caused by filter failure. Clay Johnson’s new book advises us to go on an information diet. We’re apparently starting to see both better filters and better diets.

Here are some of the indicators:

The End of Information Overload?“—Liz Wilson, staff writer at paper.li, says people are reading more, and they’re reading longer pieces.

The Phone Stack“—Cool People Care says the phone stack is catching on. It’s a simple idea: “When you’re out at dinner, after everyone has ordered, each person places their phone in a stack in the middle of the table.”

3 Tools to Store and Search Your Social Media Activity“—The Social Media Examiner extols the virtues of egoArchive, Memolane and Greplin. egoArchive is now called Archify and will enable you to search everything you’ve seen on the web, which can be a huge time saver and result in more successful searches. Archify’s tagline: “What you see is what you search.”

How to manage in-box ‘bacon’“—Chris Gaylord at The Christian Science Monitor offers several filtering techniques to deal with the commercial messages you sort of want (and Unsubscribe.com for the ones you don’t).

Too Much Input and Not Enough ‘Innerput’ Is Bad for Business“—Blogging at the Huffington Post, psychologist Jim Taylor advises setting criteria around the information you’ll consume—and jettisoning that which doesn’t clear the bar.

And end to emails . . . here’s the way“—A state-of-email report from Sydney Morning Herald’s Glenda Kwek. Kwek mentions France’s Atos (74,000 employees), which aims to completely replace email with wikis, instant messaging and other tools. Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. And Stark Insider’s Clinton Stark doubts that email will ever disappear (“Email is dead. Long live email!“).

Not all of those articles include measurable evidence that the world is getting a better handle on information overload. But the scores of comments that accompany some of the pieces are filled with ideas from people who have come up with answers that work.

Have you seen evidence that the dialog is moving away from “Woe is us” to “Here’s how I’m coping?” If so (or if not), the comment box is yours.

 

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Information Overload 101 for 2012

It’s a lot easier to experience information overload than it is to study up on it. For one thing, so much has been written in the past few years that it’s almost become its own form of overload.

So if you’re looking to understand the state of the challenge—what we know, what’s being done, what sorts of solutions are working—I’d like to suggest a few places to begin.

The Information Overload Research Group got its start on the campus of Microsoft Research in 2007, and will produce its second conference on February 25 in San Francisco (to which you’re invited). The organization’s web site: iorgforum.org

Jonathan Spira (a fellow director of IORG) is the author of Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization, one of the best overviews of the scope and cost of information overload—approaching $1 trillion a year in the U.S. (Read my earlier summary.) Spira also runs a web site as a companion to the book (overloadstories.com) and contributes to the Basex blog.

When he’s not curating TED conferences, Chris Anderson works to change our thinking about email. He’s blogged on the topic and written an “Email Charter” intended as a pledge to reform bad habits. (Read more in Fast Company.)

About a year ago, Derek Dean and Caroline Webb wrote a piece for the McKinsey Quarterly called “Recovering from Information Overload.” In it, they debunk multitasking as damaging to productivity and creativity—and even relationships and health. They outline a coping strategy that involves focusing, filtering and forgetting. And they say that resetting the culture to healthier norms is a critical new responsibility for 21st-century executives.

In a piece called “Are we on information overload?,” Salon interviews David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and author of a new book called Too Big to Know. Weinberger talks about “networked facts,” the evolution of filters, and his optimistic view of the future: “In the sciences and humanities, it’s hard to find somebody who claims the Internet is making him or her stupid, even among those who claim the Internet is making us stupid. And I believe this is the greatest time in human history.”

Clay Johnson is co-founder of Blue State Digital (the firm that managed Barack Obama’s online candidacy). He’s out with a new book called The Information Diet—his prescription for consciously controlling our information intake. An interview with Johnson (“Don’t blame the information for your bad habits”) was published this month in O’Reilly Radar: “Information overload is the wrong term because it blames the information. . . . We never say someone suffering from obesity is suffering from food overload. . . . Information overload’s message is, ‘put these tools on your computer, and you’ll better manage the information.’ This kind of practice would be like trying to go on a food diet by buying a different kind of refrigerator, or trying to become a professional athlete by relying solely on the purchase of running shoes. The problem is, we don’t need to manage the information. We need to manage our consumption of it.” (Watch the video. Johnson was also interviewed on NPR.)

Seattle health and science writer Sondra Kornblatt (Brain Fitness for Women), says women especially are under “insane stress”—from both information overload and expectation overload (which includes consuming all that information). In an essay in the Huffington Post, Kornblatt says the antidotes include drinking a glass of water when you first wake up, moving more, and—you may like this—eating chocolate.

But wait—there’s more. Actually, you’ll have to wait. That’s enough to consume at one sitting. Next week, I’ll post another half dozen articles that will help further your understanding of information overload.


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IORG schedules “Overloaded 2012” for Feb. 25 in San Francisco

The Information Overload Research Group is sponsoring a day-long conversation on that topic next month in San Francisco. It’s designed to be much like the two-day workshop at Microsoft Research that got the group going in 2007. If you’re interesting in helping to put a dent in the problem, this is your opportunity to influence the discussion.

Here’s the invitation sent out today by IORG president Nathan Zeldes:

“The Information Overload Research Group is excited to announce Overloaded 2012, a private one-day gathering amongst those who are leading the battle against information overload from a diversity of domains such as business, academia, technology, journalism, psychology, and research. If you share this interest, we’d love your attendance in San Francisco on Feb. 25, 2012.

“At this one-day event, we’ll have a couple of keynotes but will concentrate the day on creating a lively dialog, crossing organizational and domain boundaries, and developing new insight into the state of information overload as well as the latest solutions. This event is designed to open the way to ongoing collaboration in the future.

“This is not designed to be a full-fledged conference, but an intimate gathering of thought leaders working together in the heart of San Francisco. The cost to attend will be $75, which simply covers food and venue expenses. You are welcome to share this invitation with other IO practitioners that you know personally… but we will cap the attendance at about 75.

“Reserve your place by registering at our Eventbrite page (http://overloaded2012.eventbrite.com). We look forward to meeting you in what promises to be a productive, interesting and (not least) fun coming together of like minds.”

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