Category Archives: Email management

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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Filed under Email management, Information Overload Research Group, Personal productivity

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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Filed under Cultural change, Email management, Impacts on society, Pearls, Personal productivity

Will hashtags work with email?

A few months ago, I suggested that email was missing an important ingredient. Email messages include a setting to indicate the urgency, but nothing to indicate the kind of email it is.

Does it contain an action item? Does it relate to an upcoming meeting? Is it something you really need to know? Or can it be read at your convenience (or not at all)?

I developed a series of four-letter tags for subject lines (like URGT for “Urgent”) that were unlikely to appear in any email written in English—so they could safely be used for filtering.

Today, it hit me. Why go to that much trouble? Why not use hashtags?

So I sent my first email with a hashtag in the subject line:

#ACTION: Your brief bio needed to promote June 27 information overload teleconference

Now none of the well-known authors to whom I sent this are filtering for #ACTION. Probably no one is. Yet.

But you’re also not likely to see “I am asking you to take #action now” in a typical email message. So filters set for hashtags aren’t likely to be fooled by something else.

The big advantage of hashtags—as opposed to a system that an organization might have to “sell” to its employees—is that they consist of real words. Many people have extensive experience with hashtags. There’s no learning curve. And no change-management effort. It should be a lot easier to get a group to agree on a set of hashtags than to convince them to adopt URGT instead of #URGENT.

What was I thinking?

The one non-trivial hurdle is this: The hashtags will work only for the group that decides to embrace them. Although if the group is a 50,000-person corporation, the benefits would be significant.

But to really put a dent in information overload, email hashtags would need to be adopted by nearly everyone.

Is anyone saying that can’t happen?


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The cost of email: New—and startling—numbers

Researchers in the UK and Australia have put new cost figures on email use by company employees—at least £5000 ($8175) and in some cases well over £10,000 ($16,350) per employee per year. The research appeared recently in the International Journal of Internet and Enterprise Management.

Thomas Jackson of the Department of Information Science, at Loughborough University, and colleague Sharman Lichtenstein, at Deakin University in Burwood, studied how email is used and abused at four organizations. Their formula is based on an average salary of £25,000 ($40,875). While email is, of course, the way a great deal of business gets accomplished, the researchers say its costs are increased by ambiguous unclear messages, e-mail overload, security and privacy issues, and e-mail interruptions. Their formula accounts for time spent reading email (average read time and average number of emails per day), as well as the interruption recovery time involved in reading those messages.

According to a news release from Inderscience, the report’s publisher, the survey of company email use revealed typically that:

  • Almost one in five emails was cc’ed unnecessarily to staff members other than the main recipient
  • 13% of received emails were irrelevant or untargeted
  • A mere 41%, much less than half, of received emails were for information purposes
  • Less than half of emails (46%) that required an action on the part of the recipient actually stated what the expected action was
  • 56% of employees remarked that email is used too often instead of telephone or face-to-face
  • Ironically, almost half of employees (45%) felt that their own emails were easy to read

Say Jackson and Lichtenstein: “These findings may help organisations to become more effective in managing their email communication systems. It is recommended that communication managers or others responsible for email policy and management examine their email policies and develop a ‘snapshot’ of how their employees use email. Such information will provide an organisation with a useful foundation from which to build their training to increase the effectiveness of their employees.”

The researchers also studied the effectiveness of training employees in the efficient use of email using Seminar-Based Training (SBT) and Computer-Based Training (CBT) delivery modes. Says Inderscience: “The findings suggest that SBT has a diminishing impact over a very short period of time, but a combined approach of SBT and CBT is more effective and provides better results.”

Read the news release at Alpha Galileo.


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The overwhelm point

Monday morning and here they come. Email after email. IM after IM. SharePoint documents. Voice mails. By noon, there’s already more than you can read by 5 (or 8)—even without counting the four hours of meetings that will keep you away from your desk. (And certainly not counting all the social media from the outside world.)

But of course, some of the most important communications of the day will arrive after you’ve already reached the point where you couldn’t hope to process them all.

And this leads to a theorem: There’s a point at which each additional input subtracts from the value of all the inputs awaiting processing. In math, we called this the relative maximum. In the office, we call it too much to get through. (Research in the UK last year by Salesforce.com showed that 70 percent of workers receive irrelevant internal email, and nearly 40 percent operate on information overload.)

So let’s give it a name—the overwhelm point. We know what happens there: Once you arrive, every new electronic communication you have to handle decreases the value of everything else awaiting your attention. Why? Because you either deal with the items at breakneck speed, or you start jettisoning them to get them out of your queue. (Perhaps, as I’ve been known to do, you drag a bunch of email messages into a folder called “Email bankruptcy.”)

Once you get beyond the overwhelm point, it affects your life in a variety of ways. Those include whether you’re able to do quality work, your overall work/life balance, your reputation for being responsive, and how generally stressed you feel.

Where, exactly, is the overwhelm point? There’s no single answer to that. I’m certain that it varies by person, and by the type and complexity of input he or she is receiving. A text message, for instance, doesn’t count the same as an email with a heavy-duty spreadsheet attached. The OP may vary by gender, age, geography, education level, and a dozen other factors.

If you have some thoughts about how to identify the overwhelm point—or know of research in this area—I’d love to hear from you.

By the way, there’s a corollary: If an organization won’t prioritize the information for its people to consume, they’ll do it themselves. And they seldom will make the same choices the organization would have (or even the choices they themselves would have made if they hadn’t been doing the sort in real time). It’s another reason that organizations of all types and sizes need to get serious about the overwhelm point.


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Filed under Attention mangement, Communications, Email management, Impacts on society, Personal productivity

Email: The missing ingredient

Google keeps rolling out features intended to make email better and easier to use. Last summer, it was “Priority Inbox,” which pushes your most important (non-spam) emails to the top of your Gmail inbox. (Read the CNN story.)

Now it’s “Smart Labels,” which sorts your email into groups in an effort to make it easier to deal with all those e-newsletters you subscribe to, advertising you’d actually like to read, and other non-urgent, non-personal emails. (Read the CNN story.)

Unfortunately, the refinements are limited to Gmail (not Google’s fault, and other companies do offer similar functionality via add-ons). And they haven’t yet found a way to enable the sender to easily include a key bit of missing information—what kind of email is this?

People have tried various workarounds to signal the kind of email they’re sending. The most popular is including a word like “ACTION” in the subject line.

When I was a partner at Outsource Marketing in Bellevue, Washington, we took that idea a step further. We created a series of four-letter tags to use at the beginning of subject lines:

URGT: Urgent – respond or act ASAP

ACTN: Action required

UN2K: You need to know

FYIN: Read at your convenience

MTNG: Pre- or post-meeting communication

BUSN: Strategic business information

EMPY: Information for employees – benefits, job postings, HR

TRNG: Training-related communications

The four-letter tags offered unique letter combinations that were unlikely to appear in the text of any emails—so it was easy to search and sort on the tags. The problem, of course, was that they were only good inside the company. We couldn’t use them on emails that went to clients, nor did clients send any tagged email to us.

What really needs to happen is that these categories (or ones like them) become built into the email itself—perhaps in a drop-down menu similar to the one used to indicate urgency. If Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and other companies that control the email world would get on board, users could set up their own strategies to deal with the various types of emails they receive.

For corporate employees, who typically receive 550+ email messages each week (according to the Radicati Group), it would make a huge difference in being able to navigate the nonstop river of email.


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