Bad Habits

Four Bad Email Habits We Need to Break

One of the benefits of working for Online is that every single Onliner is empowered and encouraged to generate ideas, and/or affect positive change in our organization wherever and whenever they feel inspired to do so. One of the things I’ve been trying to impact is around this whole [air quote]email[end air quote] thing. As a result, I’ve been doing this inbox zero training thing for a while now internally (and for clients), but it’s been an absolute rush to have the opportunity to also do it in a more public / recognized way.

Having eaten, breathed, and slept all kinds of email problems and questions for the last little while has given me a pretty decent perspective on some of the biggest problems plaguing most people. It’s also given me a decent perspective into some of the things we inflict upon ourselves as a result of our own bad habits! Writing my last post got me thinking  back over the years about some these habits that are really entrenched in the business / tech world. It’s funny, you’d think for as nerdy as most of us are these days you’d think we’d have a better grip on some of the tools we use with on a daily basis. When it comes to email, it feels even more ridiculous considering we use it as frequently as hourly or more. In order to do my (very small) part to assist in breaking some of our bad email habits, let’s talk about the few top contenders for worst email faux-pas!

Four

To != CC

We all let ourselves slide now and again when it comes to email etiquette, but we gotta reel it back in when it comes to abusing the To and CC fields in our editor of choice.  How often do we all get emails that are directly asking us a question or requesting a response, but our names are squarely placed in the CC field? How many times have people emailed you back saying… “Hey, why didn’t you respond to my message?” when you weren’t included in the To line at all? Have you ever wondered who was supposed to take point on a particular action because all the recipients were put in the To field?We have to get back on the wagon when it comes to indicating who the message is TO, and who is simply being copied (CC’d – Carbon Copy’d).

Calendar Responses … Send ’em

Every time I’m booking a room or ordering food I have that moment where I think to myself:

Aaron, you’re ordering food, but can you really count on the number of people coming that responded to the invite?

After many instances of trial and error I’ve learned the answer is unequivocally “No, I can’t”, but I still hold on to the foolish belief that I should be able to! So lets all just agree that from now on we will all accept meetings and “send a response NOW” when prompted to do so from our mail client of choice. Accepting the meeting and failing to do so will result in the organizer receiving NO indication of whether or not you’re coming. If you’re using iCal or Outlook or anything else, take a second and make sure that replies are turned on right now… you might just save someone a headache or two down the road.

One at a Time … Please!

So often, there are times when I get a message from someone and they’ll say something like:

Aaron, can you please check problem a, b, or c?
Also, how was your weekend? Mine was great! I had a blast doing yadda yadda yadda

So when I send back my reply, do I include my weekend plans in the email first? Last? What happens when I go on and on about my amazing (or not so amazing) weekend and my response to the A, B, C question gets lost in the shuffle? Keep It Simple Stupid has never been more important than right here; when responding to messages like this put each of your answers in a separate email.

Save Your Questions for the End

We all work on projects of varying complexity. Sometimes we can describe the whole thing in a 1-pager. Sometimes we’re talking about multi-hundred-page documents containing use cases, business workflows, process diagrams, etc. Regardless of the problem at hand, leverage this technique to make sure your recipients are following your train of thought all the way through to the end (which really should be where your point resides, no?).

When you’re describing something, looking for information, requesting confirmation, or need some kind of validation, provide your context in the body of the email and then place all your questions at the bottom. There is nothing more challenging (to me) than having to sift through a (sometimes non-HTML / un-formatted) wall of text to try and extract the questions being asked of me by the sender. Placing your questions at the end lets the reader focus on what your saying until you’ve provided enough relevant context. Armed with a (presumably) better understanding of your situation, they can then read through your itemized set of questions or bullets and provide a clear response to each of them. This also keeps the Q&A in a tight little package at the bottom of your email that’s easier to extract at a later time if ever you think its necessary (for forwards, reports, documentation, etc.)

Final Thoughts

Focusing on changing any one of these is going to be a win for you in terms of keeping your communications clear, concise, and in some cases, respectful (I’m looking at you unsent Calendar Invites). David Allen’s team has a great article up here on their email best practices (I recommend checking it out). If you don’t know who David Allen is, he wrote this little ditty a while ago (a few people have read it … and when I say a few … I mean literally millions). Lastly, if you’re interested in reading more about email strategies in general, check out this Harvard Business Review article from last week (featuring IB0 – of course :)). Lastly, thanks to Elena from Cross Border Communications for sharing the link w/ me.

Let me know what email habits you have tried to break and can’t or which ones get you most heated in the comments below.

You tweetin’ at me?

So, anyone that spends more than a few days working or hanging out with me is eventually going to hear about Inbox Zero (IB0). It’s something that I talk a lot about, but this whole [massive double quote]IB0[end massive double quote] literally unlocked a ton of hidden potential (for me) so I can’t help it. Going from someone who had a lot of good intentions to someone who was able to tackle nearly any initiative thrown at him was not something that happened by accident. This transformation is the primary reason I’m so passionate about my current process and why I feel it solves so many different problems in one fell swoop.

When I say passionate what I actually mean is… I’m a little bit obsessed with it. 

Whether it’s organization, task management, scheduling, reminders, or any other number of business related tasks, you go from exerting a huge amount of mental energy on the minutia daily activity (or dealing with the never-ending barrage of emails) to automating those parts of your life and investing more time in doing the things you love.Or, as Merlin Mann initially described his process:

It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life.

That ‘zero’, It’s not how many messages are in your inbox, it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox, especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.

– Merlin Mann

Now I’ve never claimed to be an expert on anything social, so when I was pointed at a particular tweet from a user (@DerailleurAgile) who said: 

To those chasing “Inbox Zero” – y’all are aware you’re adapting your behaviours toward a piece of software, right?

or even

By being concerned with having a software interface show zero items in it. The very act of being concerned is an adapted behaviour

I felt compelled to point out how wrong … how thoroughly and deeply he misunderstood the whole POINT!!
– I’ve since been corrected that probably wasn’t the way to go.

Adapting to software? GASP!!
Concern over the quantity (instead of the location) of emails?!? SCOFF!!
Why, that’s the exact opposite of what we want to do!?

So with that quote as inspiration, lets talk a little about why IB0 doesn’t need special tools or software, why the specific set of folders I’ve been working with, and about understanding how a (very) small shift in behavior (towards a process not software, natch) can unlock your potential too:

Requires no tools or special software

Every time I’ve introduced someone to Inbox Zero I’ve opened with this fact. and I do that, because it’s true. I’ve worked in GMail, Spark, Inbox, Mailbox, Outlook, OWA, and a bajillion other IMAP clients and the best thing about my current approach is no special software required. You just:

  1. Setup some (good) folders
  2. Arm yourself with some knowledge
  3. Baseline your existing inbox
  4. Profit (or succeed)

Search

I’ve gone on (and on, and on, and on …) about how the folders I’ve been working with are really the only ones you need due to a few main factors, one of them being just how damn good search is in nearly every client or service. With search being considered a solved problem (especially if you’re using a Google or Microsoft hosted email provider) You could technically have all your items in one folder and just look for stuff as you needed it. That might work for some, but it would completely annihilate another benefit … visibility.

Visibility

Here’s a few things to think about: Not sure if you’ve got time to do one more thing today / this week? Wondering where that proposal Angie was supposed to get back to you is? Is it a good time to book some Vacation? If you can’t answer those questions within a second or two then straight up, you’re doing it wrong. Who the heck has time to worry about your own capacity planning, work load, future dated tasks, or even things other people are supposed to do for you? I definitely don’t, or at least I choose not to. By embracing IB0 I also don’t have to. I get an at-a-glace view of my tasks:

  • due today
  • due this week
  • due from other people (or due further out from me)

What more could I really want? Well ok … we can give you more, how about …

Accessibility

If you knew that something you were already doing 10 or more times a day could leapfrog your productivity to the next level, would you do it? Hellz yeah you would! Notice we aren’t talking about adjusting your behavior to software here, we’re talking about an existing behavior in whatever software you choose no matter the platform or client. *cough* Ok sorry.

Implementing a process-based IB0 strategy basically jacks you to in to your own internal scheduling and workflow data center connected over a hard line. It immediately integrates with your existing calendar or client and shows you a unified and straight forward view of what’s what no matter where you look at it.

Got your phone? Swipe between your folders!

Got your PC / Mac? No problem, just open your folder list in your mail client!

Working on someone else’s machine (i.e. you haven’t configured anything there)? No problem, log into your IMAP account and you’ve got the same unified view into your own workflow. Its incredibly freeing not needing to think about what’s on your plate or what you need to accomplish today / in the near future. It’s … it’s actually amazing that anyone does email any other way … isn’t it?

Alright, I’m getting off the soap box … I’ll throw a few basic mail strategies at you next time and then we’ll move on to something else.

When in ROAM …

I recently got back from my very first public speaking engagement for a conference dedicated to social media influencers in Canada called ROAM. The conference was held out west, in Kelowna, BC in an absolutely fantastic venue – the Delta Grand Okanagan Resort and Conference Centre. For those of you that know me, I’ve been a complete social media Luddite (by choice) for the past 7 or 8 years.
Aaron: “Hi, *cough*, my name is Aaron and I just don’t understand social media at all… I’m not even on Facebook”
Support Group: “Hiiii Aaaaaaron”

I was taken aback at the amount of interest, activity, and engagement that there was in this space. On a personal level I still don’t really get the whole point of it, but the group of people who were in attendance weren’t just there to get their FB friend counts up. They were there learning about how to run a business either on, or by, leveraging social media platforms.

The sessions were distributed between all the big social platforms (YouTube, Pinterest, twitter, Facebook, etc.) and went from some basic “this is how you use the platform” to talking about how the platforms actually store, search for, and display your data. As someone who is technically focused in his career, and as a result has trained his family to be the same, it was really interesting to get a different perspective on some of the problems that people were having with a lot of this technology.

The bulk of the sessions were held in a large conference room, chairs and tables set up in a circle with a big space in the middle, but for roughly 50% of the sessions the entire group got up … moved to a new venue and enjoyed some good food, drink, and presentations from some of the other speakers. The whole “ROAM”ing concept worked really well (with the group size we had) and totally added to the level of comfort and familiarity the group formed between both attendees and speakers.

ROAM Room

I had the group pull everything forward and come up closer to the screen (which would be off camera to the left (to the left) in the photo above. That meant I didn’t need to be mic’d up and the attendees and I could just have a discussion back and forth about what this thing called “Inbox Zero” was all about. It felt like there was a real difference in the attitude of a group that feels obligated to listen and one that wants to listen (obviously), but there’s an even bigger different between those two groups and the ones that pay to be there. It might just be that the difference in perception was only on my side, but it really felt like the group was trying to squeeze out every ounce of knowledge they could before my talk was done.

During the presentation I was showing (off?) how all my inbox accounts actually were at zero (a practice what I preach moment), and surprisingly there were 15+ messages from twitter notifying me that people were already talking about what I was putting out there. Those 15 tweets (and the deluge that followed) are now basically making up the majority of my timeline in twitter. Talk about a warm welcome and some great reinforcement for me.

People were asking questions, laughing (even at my bad/dad jokes), and generally enjoying the talk. Over the past few days, I’ve been approached by many of the attendees who were interested in strategies, next steps, setup assistance, and even some other speaking engagements! Who knew? People, it seems, care about improving their productivity, organization, and capacity planning, and decreasing their stress and effort required at the same time 😉 #soapBox

ok … so to wrap this up…

I’m back in the peg
I’m armed with some new knowledge
I’m going to keep up with this speaking / teaching thing
and …
I’ve just got to get myself prepped to keep on top of all these new initiatives and stay on top of my email and find time for #ProjectSnowfall 😉 #intentionallyvague … #miscellaneoushashtags

Time to put my money where my mouth is.