Randall Stross in the NYTimes writes about how prominent bloggers get overwhelmed by email and how its nothing new. Of course, journalists empathize with this condition, so its perhaps over emphasized at large. But implicit in a lot of conversations I've had lately, we've turned up the noise in our communications and there is a lot of room for innovation in extracting signal and enhancing effectiveness.
Randall notes how human proxies in the form of assistants may not be effective. Yes, you can offshore outsource such services at nominal cost these days, but if anything such an assistant should be closer to you than anyone to be effective. And the article does not explore using the social network as a filter, going beyond the single assistant. The article does highlight the practices of H.L. Menchken, known for his effective and illustrious correspondence, who died 50 years ago.
Whether the post brought 10 or 80 letters, Mencken read and answered them all the same day. He said, “My mail is so large that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me.”
YET at the same time that Mencken teaches us the importance of avoiding overnight e-mail indebtedness, he also reminds us of the need to shield ourselves from incessant distractions during the day when individual messages arrive. The postal service used to pick up and deliver mail twice a day, which was frequent enough to permit Mencken to arrange to meet a friend on the same day that he extended the invitation. Yet it was not so frequent as to interrupt his work.
Batch processing was easier when everyone was on the same clocks for sending and receiving. Today most people have a bell curve for their communications, with peak hours generally being when they are awake. And everyone has a different bell curve not to mention different time zones.
This batch processing approach is inherently more efficient, but to make it effective you have to establish protocols with whom you communicate. Productivity guru Tim Ferriss notes:
...In a digital world, creating time therefore hinges on minimizing e-mail. The fastest method I’ve found for controlling the e-mail impulse is to set up an autoresponder that indicates you will be checking e-mail twice per day or less. This is an example of “batching” tasks (performing like tasks at set times, between which you let them accumulate), and your success with batching will depend on two factors:
1. Your ability to train others to respect these intervals
and, much more difficult,
2. Your ability to discipline yourself to follow your own rules
I think you can work out these protocols with people you regularly communicate. But such people also adapt to you, perhaps your lack of responsiveness and how you react in escalating. But establishing these protocols, across modalities, are the most difficult with the same strangers who could provide the most valuable new information to you. Look Tantek's approach of putting and adapting his protocols on a wiki page. Look at Robert Scoble's difficulty in how he follows everyone who follows him, but then can't get people to respect a protocol of not sending him direct messages in twitter, especially the text messages are expensive when on the road in Israel. Valuing and responding new correspondents, what Menchen called courtesy and we might call quaint, rises in complexity as modalities fragment communication.
Ms. Rodgers said that Mencken was acutely disturbed by interruptions that broke his concentration. The sound of a ringing telephone was associated in his mind, he once wrote, with “wishing heartily that Alexander Graham Bell had been run over by an ice wagon at the age of 4.”
Some people might wish the same for Jack, Ev and Biz, although an ice wagon is tough to come by these days.
As we are splintering out of email and into other modalities, they tend to share some common traits:
- Pull models of attention management instead of push
- Less formal
- More public and discoverable
- With RSS and APIs, messages can be used in other modalities
- Filtered by people
These modalities, such a blogs and Twitter, and not to mention more specialized forms such as social bookmarking, feed sharing, Flickr or obnoxious Facebook apps -- all trend towards batch processing. They can almost all flow into an RSS newsreader for a power user. And conversations flow across them and often threads and comments are hard to follow. But that's okay because of informality and discovering what you missed while in the flow is far easier.
One key to effectiveness is looking for opportunities for more public conversation to prompt easy group forming and gaining agreement from the group on a more effective set of protocols.
Batch processing private correspondence needs more than tools, but practices. We've known for a while now that creating private spaces for collaboration can aid productivity by taking some email out of the inbox. And more recently with wikis and the right practices, groups can agree on protocols to be more effective and adapt them rapidly. To Tim Ferriss' point, this needs discipline, but for the whole group.
Something I'm seeing with what we recently launched at Socialtext is an important distinction:
- You can follow people and their more public communications. They will be less formal, often curating information for you while in the flow of their own activity. By pulling their flow at a time convenient for you and publishing not just for them, you gain greater social discovery.
- As you form more private groups in workspaces, and if you take the time to gain agreement on communication protocols, you can batch process effectively.
- If either (1) which requires no protocol, or (2) which does, fails to be effective for sender or receiver -- by all means escalate, even at risk of being run over by an ice wagon.