Category Archives: Personal productivity

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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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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Overload! New book spells out the hazards of infoglut

We’ve learned from Nicholas Carr how the Internet is driving our thinking into “The Shallows.” Clay Shirky shared the blessings of our “Cognitive Surplus”—the resources that are voluntarily poured into making the world a better place through technology. James Gleick’s “The Information” chronicled how we’ve dealt with information through the ages.

Now Jonathan Spira (Wikipedia| IORG bio) comes forth with a book that goes easy on the social commentary and builds a compelling case with original research and well-chosen anecdotes about what information overload is doing to knowledge workers in the U.S. It’s called Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization.

Spira, CEO and chief analyst at the New York research firm Basex, gets our attention with a boatload of factoids:

  • There are 78.6 million knowledge workers in the United States alone.
  • Information Overload cost the U.S. economy almost $1 trillion in 2010.
  • A minimum of 28 billion hours is lost each year to Information Overload in the United States.
  • Reading and processing just 100 e-mail messages can occupy over half of a knowledge worker’s day.
  • It takes five minutes to get back on track after a 30-second interruption.
  • For every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an e-mail, eight hours are lost.
  • 58 percent of government workers spend half the workday filing, deleting, or sorting information, at a cost of almost $31 billion dollars.
  • 66 percent of knowledge workers feel they don’t have enough time to get all of their work done.
  • 94 percent of those surveyed at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.
  • One major Fortune 500 company estimates that Information Overload impacts its bottom line to the tune of $1 billion per year.
  • Information Overload has caused people to lose their ability to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate, and even reason and think.

Spira also presents 10 tips to help lower information overload, distilled from his 25 years as a technology thought leader:

E-mail

  • I will not e-mail someone and then two seconds later follow up with an IM or phone call.
  • I will refrain from combining multiple themes and requests in a single e-mail.
  • I will make sure that the subject of my e-mail clearly reflects both the topic and urgency of the missive.
  • I will read my own e-mail before sending to make sure it is comprehensible to others.
  • I will not overburden colleagues with unnecessary e-mail, especialliy one-word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!” and will use “reply to all” only when absolutely necessary.

Instant messaging and presence awareness

  • I will not get impatient when there’s no immediate response to my message.
  • I will keep my presence awareness state up-to-date and visible to others so they know whether I’m busy or away.

All forms of communication

  • I will recognize that the intended recipient of my communications is not a mind reader, and therefore I will supply the necessary details in my messages so nothing is left to the imagination.
  • I will recognize that typed words can be misleading in terms of both tone and intent, and I will strive for clarity and simplicity in my messages. (The use of an occasional, well-placed emoticon can do wonders here.)
  • Finally, because i understand the complexity and severity of the problem of Information overload, I will do whatever I can to facilitate the transfer and sharing of knowledge.

Spira devotes a chapter to “The Tech Industry and Information Overload,” and presents a behind-the-scenes look at the founding of the Information Overload Research Group (iorgforum.org). He offers probably the only accurate story out there of how IORG came to be. Despite the PR props that several large companies have received for “banding together” to solve the IO problem, the only meaningful support has come from Intel and Microsoft Research (for sponsoring the two-day conference at which IORG was born) and Xerox (for a grant that funded the organization’s first couple of years).

Full disclosure: Jonathan and I both serve on IORG’s board of directors.

Read the news release
Order from Amazon
Basex Blog
Overload Stories (an ongoing continuation of the book)


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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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