30 day challenge: better email handling

Some relatives were visiting this past week, so my inbox has a triple digit backlog. That’s after aggressive pruning of mailing lists and so on. Nearly all of those emails mention me in a “to:” or “cc:” line and request a response. Some observations:

– roughly 40% of those emails are from the outside world (that is, not from colleagues at Google).
– only 5% of my emails are from people who are actually on my team.
– 3% of my current emails are about internal legal matters.
– 1% are from public relations folks.
– about 10-12% of those emails are about a couple recent internal projects that aren’t related to webspam but that I’m helping with.

My 30 day goal this month is to get to a better place with email. Heck, I might make “better email habits” an ongoing 30 day challenge until things are in a better place. Could I get to a healthier place in three months? Four months? I have no idea how long it will take, but email represents my largest source of work stress. When I’ve tracked my time in the past, it takes me about three hours a day to keep from falling behind on email. If my whole day is full of meetings, then I’m spending several hours at night to keep my head above water. Does anybody else tackle email on their vacation so it’s not as bad when they get back? Some of you do, right?

At 40% of my overall load, it’s clear to me that I have to do something different for emails from the outside world. For years I tried to answer everyone who emailed me. I’m going to have to go “lossy” and just let some of those emails drop.

I need to think about whether it makes sense to write a blog post like Chris Sacca did (which
Rick Klau recently surfaced) that tries to address the common things that people email about. Then again, Rand Fishkin did something like that at http://moz.com/rand/making-email-more-scalable/ and he reported that he ended up with “a bunch of very angry people” when he pointed them to a blog post.

So I’m not sure whether it’s better not to reply, or to write up a canned response or maybe a blog post or a flowchart that I can point people to. If you have tips that have worked for you to make email more manageable, let me know in the comments below.

Added, 9/25/2013: This has been a tough challenge. One tactic that has worked well for me is to put email away from Friday evening until Sunday evening. Then (since I’m a workaholic), I ask myself “If someone else were trying to relax this weekend, what would I recommend for them to do?” and I try to do that. As a result, I’ve read more books this month, which has been nice.

The other tactic is to allow myself to go lossy, which means not answering every email. A lot of emails require 5-15 minutes at a minimum to respond, so email becomes a todo list in which anyone can keep adding to the list. Treating any non-trivial email as if it’s a request for 10-15 minutes of my time has helped me figure out which emails I should respond to vs. not replying.

Email backlog

This is a “hairball” post you can ignore. However, this post does trace my thinking about how to scale webmaster communication. Part of me wants to start answering questions I get via email by stripping out the identifying information and then replying with a blog post. Instead of one person getting a single reply, everybody could see what the answer is.

I spent most of the past week tackling my horrendous email backlog. At the start of the weekend, I was just touching 500 unread emails. I got it down to 218 unread emails and 264 total emails in my inbox. Of course, the ones that are left are the harder messages. And out of those 264 emails, 167 are from outside Google.

A few weeks ago, I flew up to the Kirkland office for a couple days to catch up with the Webmaster Central team. At some point, we were talking about doing videos for webmasters. Someone said “Why don’t we just grab a video camera and see how many videos we can shoot in an hour?” So we did. We managed to tape three pretty informative videos in about an hour, and that includes set-up/breakdown time.

So now I’m looking at these 150+ emails from outside Google, and I’m pondering about how much time I should spend on email compared to other things. Email is a 1:1 communication, so I could answer 10 emails and help roughly 10 people. Or in the same amount of time, I could comment on a forum, start on a blog post, or plan out another video that could benefit a lot more people. I did a series of about 15 videos last year when my wife was out of town, and the videos have been watched over 300K times and downloaded over 100K times.

So to make a long story short, I’m trying to figure out how I should handle email going forward. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but don’t be offended if I don’t reply to email as much going forward.

The dangers of productivity porn

A quick “hairball” post about how sometimes it’s better to just go with the flow. I like how xkcd made this point with a chart of whether it’s worth the time to fix something that’s bugging you.

I have a friend who is mechanical engineer. A few years ago he took me for a tour of his workplace that ended in his office. As I looked at his workstation, something leapt out at me. My friend had never changed his background screen. Whatever the computer came with by default, that’s what he was using. With this simple act of indifference, my friend taught me an important productivity lesson.

It’s great to be productive. It really is. But sometimes we chase productivity so much that it makes us, well, unproductive. It’s easy to read a lot about how to be more productive, but don’t forget that you have make that time up.

Start the year off right: empty your email and take some time off from Twitter/Facebook

Want to get a fresh start on the new year? Here’s a few quick tips:

– Start the year off with an empty inbox in Gmail. It’s pretty simple to do: you assign a label for everything in your inbox right now, then archive everything so your inbox is empty. You can still dig into that label if you want to work down your email backlog, but it feels great to start the new year fresh. Follow the steps to declare a lightweight email bankruptcy, with the chance of still responding to those emails down the road.

– Do a one week (or one month!) digital cleanse by staying off Twitter and Facebook. I think I’ve said before that if you want to fill five minutes, Twitter is a great way to fill 35 minutes. Sometimes I end up spending more time on Twitter than I mean to, so last year I took a week off from Twitter, which turned into a month off. It’s easier than you might think–why not try a digital cleanse yourself? I’m going to do this digital cleanse for at least a while.

Also think about what you want from this year. Resolutions work for some people and not for others. But if you come up with even a single area you’d like to explore more, it helps you to recognize those opportunities throughout the year.

In 2009 for example, I went on 10-11 trips. When I looked back, I realized that they’d all been inside the United States. So one of my goals for 2010 was to get out to other countries more. I ended up visiting Asia with my wife, taking a work-related trip to Europe, visiting Mexico with my wife, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa with friends. I wouldn’t have done so many of those trips if I hadn’t set a goal in the back of my mind.

So think about your goals for the new year. Lots of people want to get their finances in better shape or have goals about losing weight/getting fit. Speaking as someone who has lost 35-40 pounds in the last few years and kept it off for ~3 years, my main recommendation is to look for small changes that you think you can sustain for the rest of your life.

But you could also ponder all sorts of directions you’d like to explore. Maybe you’d like to work on being happier this year. Maybe you’d like to improve your skills. If you’re a left-brained person, maybe you could get in touch with your creative side by learning to draw, sing, dance, play guitar, etc. Maybe you want to practice being thankful, or widen your circle of friends. Or spend more time with family. You could even break your goals down into 30 day challenges.

But I think the main thing is to do some thinking about where you’d like to go this year. It can really pay off. What sorts of goals do you have for the new year?

Doing the “Digital Cleanse”: no Twitter for a week

John Mayer had a good post about a “digital cleanse.” The idea is to step away from the busy, buzzy world for a week. John mentioned four ideas, but I’m going to try just one: “no use of Twitter or any other social networking site”.

That’s right, I’m going Twitter-free for a week. I don’t really use Facebook, so that’s not a problem. The only other social networking website I use is FriendFeed, so I’m cutting that out too. To keep me on track this week, here’s what I did:

  • Tweeted that I was doing the digital cleanse and changed my Bio line to mention that I was doing the digital cleanse.
  • Removed all Twitter apps from my mobile phone.
  • Removed the Twitter and FriendFeed shortcuts from Chrome’s new tab page.
  • Hard-coded a bunch of websites so that I can’t even access them. In Linux, you can type “sudo vi /etc/hosts” and add the following lines:

    127.0.0.1 twitter.com
    127.0.0.1 www.twitter.com
    127.0.0.1 facebook.com
    127.0.0.1 www.facebook.com
    127.0.0.1 friendfeed.com
    127.0.0.1 www.friendfeed.com

    What these lines say is “Computer, when you try to use the domain name system (DNS) to resolve twitter.com to an IP address, hard-code the IP address to be 127.0.0.1.” Note that 127.0.0.1 is a special IP address that corresponds to your own computer. In essence, these entries make it impossible to browse to Twitter, Facebook, or FriendFeed. You might need to reboot your computer too for the settings to take effect.

I’m thinking that I might blog a little more now that I’ve stopped tweeting for a week, so I’m doing one extra step–I’m linking my blog in Feedburner so that when I publish a blog post, it will tweet a link to that blog post. Here’s how to do it:
1. Log in to http://feedburner.google.com/ and click on your blog’s feed.
2. Click on the “Publicize” tab and then the “Socialize” service on the left.
3. Add your Twitter account and select the options you want. Here’s how it looks:

Tweeting from FeedBurner

Then click “Save” and that’s all you need to do.

So far, I’ve been Twitter-free for twelve hours. In that time, I’ve
– worked out
– taken down our Christmas tree, chopped it into sections and put it out on the street
– typed in three months’ worth of data for a project that I’m working on
– taken down our Christmas lights and packed them away
– stored all our various Christmas decorations
– run a couple loads of laundry
– put out the trash
– gone shopping and had a couple meals with my wife
Oh, and written a blog post. We’ll see how the digital cleanse works for the rest of the week. 🙂

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