This post is about too much email. About the cure I used, and its one major weakness.
Most of us have suffered from the plague of too much email, and I’m no exception. I used to dread the towering pile of messages that was my inbox, and flinched at the audio alert signaling each new item. Email apnea seemed to contemplate my sleep apnea.
So after teaching a workshop on information overload, I decided to try a radical cure, Inbox Zero. This is a method whereby users ruthlessly clean out their inboxes, ending up with a glorious zero messages each day (here’s a video lecture). It’s a bit like the way we should treat snail-mail boxes – we aren’t supposed to let envelopes pile up, and should take care of things quickly. I also use a to-do list, relying on paper and pen for that.
It’s worked very well so far. The initial step of killing off my backlog took a couple of days, and I cleared the calendar by declaring them personal time. Once I got a to-do list working, I’ve been able to achieve the below fairly regularly:
There are a bunch of tricks we can discuss for doing this (turn off the alerts; don’t let people treat your email like IM), and maybe that’s the subject of another post. For now I want to simply celebrate victory, then introduce the shadow. Because it’s awfully, terribly sweet to reach inbox zero. To step away from the machine and, well, do other stuff is liberating. It frees me from seeing email as the main arena of my life. I can write.
Until I travel.
Travel is my inbox zero Achilles Heel.
I travel a great deal for my work. Both NITLE and my consulting practice send me to many locations for talks, meetings, keynotes, etc. I do a great deal remotely, but there is still a deep demand for in-person work. Which is fine, and means I spend a significant amount of time in cars and planes. Cars, because I live in the northeastern United States, which has an unusually high density of campuses within driving distance. Planes, because people elsewhere also want me. Which is terrific.
However, there are all kinds of challenges to modern travel, from prices to discomfort to bureaucracy. The one problem I want to share here was the way it vitiates inbox zero. Simply put, time spent on the road is usually time when one cannot effectively zero out one’s email.
Driving is the worst. Obviously we cannot address email behind the wheel. I can accomplish some work through audio, namely taking phone calls for meetings and listening to podcasts for research, but email requires screen-reading and keyboard-thumping. Two, four, six, nine hours behind the wheel is a lot of emailing not done.
Air travel is nearly as bad. On an airplane there are few options for doing email seriously. To begin with, space is cramped in coach, slowing down one’s ability to focus and type without adopting a painful posture. Internet connectivity is either nonexistent or, all too often, not very good. And until the FAA’s new rulings work their way across all airlines, we sometimes enjoy the no-electronic-devices rule during a flight’s beginning and ending.
Worse yet is that only part of air travel takes place in the air. It also includes time in airports, not all of which have free and/or decent WiFi. I can get some email work done on my phone (Galaxy Note), but many messages really need a laptop when they require reference to multiple documents, substantial writing, or the use of physical materials not currently inhabiting an airport. Moreover, getting to and from an airport requires ground transport, which often means driving oneself (see above).
My travel is for work, as I said, and my work ethic means I devote myself wholly to each client and function. When I land on a campus or a conference, I want to be fully present for that event: meeting people formally or in-, giving talks, exploring a physical site, being available for ad hoc discussions. I start the working day at breakfast and carry on after dinner… meaning there’s little time to hack back at the day’s accumulated emails.
As a result, each day on the road is a day where my inbox is un-zeroed. The messages accumulate. So when I return home and resume my inbox zero practice, I have to address not only the new day’s pile of messages, but the tottering stack remaining from the just-concluded trip. My rule of thumb is a day for a day: one working day to redress one day on the road. Which adds up when I’m away for a week or more at a time.
In short, travel throws my fine email practice out of whack.
Is there a way around this problem? Perhaps growing airplane wireless connectivity will mean more emails being processed. Maybe a tablet will be easier to handle than a laptop, and more effective than a phone. Some developer has an audio tool for email processing (“OK, Glass, what’s the next message?”). Or will self-driving cars will let me work patiently while the algorithm handles driving? Or is this simply an intractable problem?