Please End the Misery

It was a headline guaranteed to grab my attention: “Email is making us miserable.” And the subtitle really hit home too: “In an attempt to work more effectively, we’ve accidentally deployed an inhumane way to collaborate.” This is how Cal Newport began his recent article in The New Yorker on the misery of email.

Work Harder (Jordan Whitfield)

In this article, he argues that email exploits and perverts our fundamental human need for connection. In the first place, it lures us in with the promise of meaningful relationship. Then it threatens us with deprivation of those relationships if we have the temerity to limit our time on email. Of course, toss in a little hit of dopamine now and then for the rare occasion good news arrives via email, and you have created a system that makes nearly willing slaves of us all.

But it also makes us miserable. Newport cites a University of California (Irvine) study that found that “The longer one spends on email in [a given] hour the higher is one’s stress for that hour.” Unfortunately, the common recommendation to limit time on email by batching messages is not always a good solution. Other researchers found that “batching e-mails actually made them more stressed, perhaps because of worry about all of the urgent messages they were ignoring.” Finally, a 2019 study of Swedish workers came to another troubling conclusion: “They found that repeated exposure to “high information and communication technology demands” (translation: a need to be constantly connected) were associated with “suboptimal” health outcomes.”

But how do we reduce the misery? Part of the problem is the unrelenting pace of email, coupled with the haphazard nature of its messages. It’s as if we are running an endless marathon through a minefield.
Unless you want to feel like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory (see below), the first step is to reduce the volume and pace of the flow. This means:

  • Reducing your own contributions to the volume:
    • Make a conscious choice NOT to use email if another, more effective communication method is available to you. Of course, this means that you have to get educated on those other options.
    • Keep the email messages you write short, sweet, and to the point. And make sure your subject line contains the gist of your message.
    • Indicate near the top of your message what action is required.
    • Do not cc and bcc a ton of people. Copying people simply adds unnecessary work (and stress) to their day. (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!)
    • Do not engage in email volleys. If it goes beyond two rounds of responses, pick up the phone and talk it out.
  • Shutting down behaviors that add to the volume:
    • If you are on the receiving end of lots of copied email, ask the sender what they are hoping to achieve. If it is a defensive move on their part, you likely have some miscommunication or trust issues that must be addressed.
    • If you see something, say something. When email threads get out of control, suggest that the conversation be taken offline. If necessary, convene the offline conversation yourself.
    • When you see people using email like a Swiss army knife, gently point them to the better tool. For example, if they are trying to be collaborative, they might have more success on a platform specifically designed for collaborative work. (For the record, that platform is NOT email.)
  • Setting expectations for your team:
    • Set common expectations on response time. Is replying within 24 hours sufficient? If not, what is the right period? People stress out when they worry that they haven’t responded quickly enough. (For the record, an immediate response should not be necessary. If it is an emergency, call or text.)
    • Set common expectations on the right communications medium. Email is fine for information that is not time sensitive. However, it is suboptimal for emergency communications, scheduling, shooting the breeze and, above all, collaborating. Make sure you have better options available to your team and then make sure they are trained and able to use those better options well.

As you’re reducing the volume, you also need to remove the mines in the minefield. This means:

  • Create more trust in your work relationships so that you have the assurance that your colleagues will bring important matters to your attention in a timely fashion.
  • Establish with your colleagues preferred ways of communicating bad news. If you can, choose face-to-face conversation (or, at least, a phone call) over email.
  • Get to know your colleagues better. The more you know them and their work, the less likely you are to be unpleasantly surprised.

Unless you have magical powers, you cannot reform your entire organization. But making these changes within your team could materially reduce the misery inflicted on all of you by email. Wouldn’t that be a change for the better?

Lucy and Ethel at the Chocolate Factory (I Love Lucy)

[Photo Credit: Jordan Whitfield]


The Transparency Switch

Are you ready for your firm to flip the transparency switch?

For many law firms, their Achilles’ Heel is e-mail. Almost all correspondence is handled electronically, but lawyers around the world have not always been diligent in sending copies of this correspondence to their firm’s records management system. To be fair, most firms I know ask their lawyers to do the right thing, but until recently there has not been technology available to make doing the right thing easy. Now, with the availability of electronic tools that can prompt a lawyer for filing details before sending the message — or, even better, suggest how the e-mail should be filed — firms are on the verge of having accurate, real-time institutional records of their electronic correspondence.

Risk managers at firms will breathe a big sigh of relief when these systems are in place. However, have others considered the impact of having the e-mail collections available at their fingertips? Suddenly, the firm’s communications will move from obscurity to transparency. One obvious consequence is that with centralized access to all the correspondence with a client, a lawyer should have a better understanding of the ongoing conversation between the client and the firm, and should be able to provide better service. And, if lawyers come to see this centralized collection as accurate, complete and reliable, they should over time stop hoarding e-mails in private Outlook folders. This will be another win for client service and firm risk management.

But, have you considered what happens to communications within the firm when all e-mail is retained in a searchable repository? What if there is a complete, centralized record of e-mail correspondence among administrative staff? Will the quality of the support services they provide improve? And, will there be an impact on office politics?  Or will the e-mails that record the daily dramas of the life of any human organization be excluded from the drive to transparency?

There are interesting times ahead.  Are you ready for your firm to flip the transparency switch?

[Photo Credit:  hockadilly]


True Productivity

How productive are you?   Really???

A recent post by Rees Morrison on the subject of productivity caught my eye. In it he described the “five-or-10-minute rule,” which recommends that you wait five or 10 minutes between the time you write an e-mail message and the time you send it. The theory is that this brief waiting time will give you an opportunity to think about the consequences of your message before you click send.

I suspect advice like this has saved many of us from acute embarrassment over the years. To my surprise, however, Rees Morrison characterized this advice in the following way:

Good advice, very lawyerly, impossible to criticize, but it will obviously hobble productivity. To advise in-house counsel to ponder the legal consequences of what they do with email – indeed, with everything they do – is to be on the side of the angels, but let productivity go to the devil.

His conclusion made me wonder about his definition of productivity.  If your definition of productivity is to get as much done as possible, a delay of even five minutes on each e-mail message could cost you valuable time for action.  However, what if that rushed e-mail proves to be wrong.  Then taking a few minutes to avert disaster suddenly seems like the most efficient course of action.

I’d suggest that the right definition of productivity is not “get as much done as possible” or even “get as much of the right things done as possible.”  Rather, a better definition of true productivity is:  Get as many of the right things done in the right way. Under this definition of productivity, the “five-or-10-minute rule” makes perfect sense.

[Photo Credit:  f_mafra]


The Customer is ALWAYS Right

At a recent gathering of law firm knowledge managers, I was told that I could make their lives easier by enabling subscription by e-mail to Above and Beyond KM. To be honest, until that point I had mistakenly assumed that nearly everyone in this social media savvy crowd had migrated to RSS readers. Therefore, I hadn’t bothered to set up e-mail subscriptions when I first launched this blog. I should have known better.

Lawyers live in Outlook. And, despite expert advice discouraging the practice, many treat their Outlook Inbox as their To Do list. If you don’t make it onto that list, you get ignored. While acknowledging the shortcomings of e-mail, some have made impressive strides in finding more inventive and efficient ways to use (and misuse) the tool. Clearly, if I was going to reach readers who either loved their e-mail or couldn’t overcome inertia sufficiently to deal with RSS, this Mohammed was going to have to go to the mountain. So as of last weekend, you’ll find in the right-hand column a quick and easy way of subscribing to this blog by e-mail.

Ask and you shall receive — because you’re the customer, and the customer is always right.


E-Mail Addiction

New York City’s Daily Post reported recently that residents of the Big Apple, Washington D.C. and Atlanta tend to check e-mail more than residents of any other place. And, apparently, more women admit to e-mail addiction than men. (Although, based on what I’ve observed, I can’t help wondering if this is more a reflection of (i) honesty in survey responses or (ii) actual practice.)

Given what we’re learning about the inefficiencies of e-mail, that’s a colossal waste of time. Here are some sad excerpts from the Daily Post’s Report, based on the Third Annual AOL survey:

Of those surveyed, 59% percent of people who own a portable device, like a Blackberry or Treo, check email in bed while in their pajamas; 37% check it while they drive; and 12% admit to checking email in church.

According to the survey, the average email user checks mail nearly five times a day. Fifty-nine percent of those with portable devices check their email every time a new message arrives. Forty-three percent of respondents with portable devices say they keep it nearby while sleeping in case they get a message.

Fifteen percent of those surveyed consider themselves “email addicts” (16% of women and 13% of men), and many plan their vacations with email access in mind. About 40% of email users say access to email is “very” or “somewhat” important to them when planning their vacation; 83% of email users admit to checking their mail once a day while vacationing.

Thankfully, people increasingly are beginning to understand that e-mail is not always the right way to communicate. However, as with any addiction, the first step is admitting that you’ve got a problem. If you have any doubts about it, think about the last time you tried to sneak a peek at your e-mail. (According to the survey, 53% admitted to checking e-mail in the bathroom.) If you felt guilty — you’ve got a problem. And, if you don’t feel guilty, you may have an even bigger problem!

The next step is actually taking steps to reduce your exposure to e-mail (e.g., checking your e-mail at regularly-scheduled times rather than every time you receive a message). In addition, you need to find alternate ways to communicate that don’t invade your life during and after business hours as much as e-mail. For example, using wikis or blogs to post information that people ask you for repeatedly by e-mail. Once it’s centrally available, they can check that source rather than bothering you every time.

I know there will be some readers who really believe that checking e-mail constantly is an essential job requirement. That may be the case for a minority of us. But for the rest, consider the tough words of Mary McKinney, Ph.D. of Successful Academic Coaching:

In my experience, email is the most insidious, seductive time-waster we face.

In fact, for many of us, email is a pernicious addiction.

Checking and replying to our electronically-delivered messages seems like a necessary, innocuous occupation, but it is also a major form of procrastination. [emphasis added]

There’s lots of advice and commentary on the web about how to manage e-mail better. Here is just a sampling:

Seven Tips for Dealing with E-Mail Addiction
Merlin Mann’s irreverant series on managing your inbox
Luis Suarez’ reports on giving up work e-mail at IBM
John Tropea’s guidance on Re-Purposing E-Mail

Let me close by quoting Mary McKinney again:

The basic premise of these suggestions is that our email addictions preempt conscious time management choices.



Do You Dare Do This?

Dave Pollard has posted on his blog, How to Save the World, a memorandum that every firm should consider sending.

The question is, how would sending it change the practice of law in your firm?

Take the challenge of this thought experiment. At a minimum, it will help you better understand which communication tools best suit particular types of communication:

– decision-making in real time by employees in a single location
– decision-making in real time by employees in different locations
– arranging appointments
– simple requests for information and quick responses to them
– conveying project status/update information
– FYI communications
– survey requests
– providing training information

For too long, we’ve been using e-mail and voice mail like overly-large machetes to drive a rough path through the communications jungle. There now appears to be a consensus that while these may be relatively fast tools, they are rarely effective or efficient for the myriad purposes to which they are put. Further, there are now available a much wider range of alternative tools that do the job better. And, savvy folks are reviving some rather retro methods (e.g., talking face-to-face!) to improve the quality and efficacy of their communications.

Read Dave Pollard’s memorandum and think about how you personally could improve the way you match communication tools to communication goals. Then think about how to teach this to your law firm colleagues. It would make a world of difference to your knowledge management program and to the quality of life within your firm.


E-Mail Triage

I used the telephone the other day.

Of course, using the phone isn’t exactly a radical thing to do, except that my reason for using the phone was important:  I picked up the phone to short-circuit an e-mail mess.  What was the e-mail mess?  My colleague and I were e-mailing each other to make some practical arrangements, however, our e-mails seemed to be out of sync.  Perhaps it started with one of us not reading and understanding the original note in its entirety because we were skimming it quickly on our blackberry.  This led to a number of e-mails back and forth, trying to explain the original message and trying to correct misunderstandings.  Finally, as I was about to push the send button on yet another explanatory message, I realized that we were “talking past each other” and needed to find a way to ensure we actually connected and finalized the arrangements.  So I picked up the telephone.  
It took all of two minutes to sort out the mess and confirm the arrangements by telephone.  You do the math:  two telephone minutes versus the time required to read and write five (or more) frustrating e-mails.
E-mail is the primary mode of communication within most businesses, including law firms.  Yet, despite all the practice we get, few of us have really mastered e-mail.  It’s a rare person who uses e-mail appropriately and efficiently.  And it’s a rarer person who can write an e-mail message that is a model of clarity despite the fact that e-mail cannot convey with any degree of precision the affect most of us rely on in personal interchanges to communicate and interpret the emotional content of a message.
For those of us who would like to brush up on our e-mail communication skills, here are some tips from Seth Godin’s E-Mail Checklist that are worth reading and implementing.  They may not provide a complete answer to e-mail triage, but they will make a difference.

Death by E-Mail

Returning from a few days out of the office, I was reminded again of how oppressive a jammed Outlook Inbox can be. Even though I diligently checked and responded to e-mail messages during my absence, I still faced a daunting pile of messages and related items that required follow-up. The resulting sensation was a little like suffocation — with the likely outcome of death by e-mail.

There is an extreme, but highly effective, strategy for avoiding death by e-mail: simply declare an e-mail moratorium. Luis Suarez has completed seven weeks of Giving up on Work e-mail. Others like Lawrence Lessig and Fred Wilson have declared “e-mail bankruptcy.” In the words of Wilson, “I am so far behind on email that I am declaring bankruptcy.” Haven’t we all experienced that feeling.

A less drastic measure is to follow the advice of Lifehacker Gina Trapani who recommends dumping that backlog into a separate Outlook folder and starting with a clean slate. You’ll feel like you’ve lost 20 pounds. Alternatively, the folks at Lifehack offer How to Avoid E-Mail Bankruptcy: 5 Rules that Work.

Jack Vinson’s post, Yours is bigger than mine, ha ha, points out that a key problem is that we are profligate in our approach to e-mail. We send too many messages to too many people. Mutually assured destruction by e-mail. The only solution to this is to send e-mail sparingly.

Being an advocate of incremental change, I took Gina’s advice. It’s an interesting experiment in personal knowledge management, but it seems to me to be very necessary. I can attest to the incredible lightness of being I experienced when my inbox shrank from several thousand messages to fewer than 10. Now let’s see how long this lasts.