Email and Productivity

I love emails as a form of communication. In fact, I prefer emails to any other synchronous form of communication. A discussion on Twitter brought about the topic of email and how to efficiently manage emails. I'm some sort of a productivity pr0n enthusiast. As a chronic procrastinator, I can't help but try and optimize the time periods that I actually get work done in. 

Studies show that multitasking is almost impossible, especially when it comes to responding to emails. Emails are an active distraction from your workflow. Every time you open an email, thinking it requires only a simple response it almost always evolves into this giant essay which brings with it a response that assigns you a bunch of action items—bam! Productivity lost. 

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
— Mark Twain

What Mark Twain probably said in jest is definitely true when it comes to emails that interrupt your workflow.

Over time I've learned some tricks/hacks that help me somewhat efficiently manage my email habit. Some of those are hard to practice—at least personally—but you might find creative ways to implement a version of the rule. In retrospect, they'll seem like commonsense advice, but they're hard to practice simply by virtue of being commonsense advice—email is a two-way communication so all your rules go to hell when the other party does not respect/give way to you comfortably following your rules. Anyway, here are the rules I try to follow to not let emails come in the way of real work.

  • Filter ruthlessly. For better or for worse, all communication at my company is in the form of emails. We have an instant messenger we use. However, that doesn't really get used to handling all communication for several reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. Because emails are the primary form of communication, I receive a ton of them—most of which are not directly relevant to my every day functioning. Besides this, there are email lists I'm subscribed to which provide me with the necessary distraction I need from work. I know this sounds like a paradox but studies show that mindless browsing is actually an indicator of productivity and a happier workplace. This means that filtering emails that are not directly related to me is paramount. Personally, I filter everything except emails that are directly addressed to me. Code Reviews or other approvals that are directly addressed to me go into a different folder which takes precedence over everything else.
  • Do not respond to emails that are not directly addressed to you, calls you out specifically, or is asking a question that only you can answer. This kind of follows from the first point, but I'll give you an example. Early in my career (ok ok, I'm not that experienced yet...) I was super excited about being the person who knew answers to questions. This was the result of me actually not knowing answers to most questions, which meant if I knew an answer I was too eager to jump in and answer it. It basically meant that I was the one picking the low hanging fruits. I'll let you in on a secret—there are SO many low hanging fruits. Most emails contain questions that only require a cursory search but the writer had to send it to an email list with 400 people because that's for some reason easier to do. The moment you stop picking on the low hanging fruits the number of emails you end up responding to reduces significantly. I'll let you in on another secret—the fewer the number of emails you respond to (those that are not specifically addressed to you) the fewerr you'll get assigned random tasks in the middle of the week. 
  • Respond to emails in bulk once or twice a day. This is impossible at certain workplaces where emails are expected to receive instant responses, or if you're low enough on the reporting chain that you cannot afford to miss emails from anyone above you, or if you have colleagues who sometimes send invites for meeting an hour out (why?), or... But if you can get this into your routine or set the expectation that this is how you operate, you've bagged a pretty significant win at workplace productivity. This is a lesson I learned from pmarca and I've strived to incorporate into my life albeit in futility.
  • I'm only hypothesizing but humor me. If you can implement the previous rule or some variant of it—one variant I have been successful in implementing is to never reply to emails instantly, you'll manage to avoid the problem of cached responses. I love the term cached responses. When I first learned of it, it blew my mind and made me go "damn, everything makes more sense now!".  I still catch myself responding to emails because "it's a quick email"—only to spiral into a web of nonsense for several hours—but I try to follow it as much as I can. Cached responses are what you think are quick, immediate answers to questions. The problem with cached responses is that just like a computer's cache, these responses require no computation. Since they require no computation, they're almost always incomplete unless you're verbatim repeating in two different emails or to two different people or worse, the same person. If you're fortunate like I am, most of your colleagues are smart people and you almost never get into a situation where a cached response is appropriate. An implication of this that should frighten you is that almost all the emails that you quickly responded to likely were incomplete responses. So, my advice is, take time to respond to emails. Sleep over them if you have to but don't jump into responding to emails as soon as they arrive at your inbox. As an exception to any rule, there are going to be emails where a quick response or a cached response is perfectly valid so go ahead and shoot shots—please don't let your coworker who sends a morning email about whether or not you would like to grab lunch hanging. Why that's an email in the first place is a topic for another post.