Don’t ask to ask, just ask

Nice little single-serving website.

The solution is not to ask to ask, but just to ask. Someone who is idling on the channel and only every now and then glances what’s going on is unlikely to answer to your “asking to ask” question, but your actual problem description may pique their interest and get them to answer.

So, to summarize, don’t ask “Any Java experts around?”, but rather ask “How do I do [problem] with Java and [other relevant info]?”

I think chat and chat-like software has this problem, where email does not.

Email as a write API

I just noticed this feature in Things:

Which reminded me of this feature in WordPress:

Which reminds me it was just this year HEY announced you could blog from your email account:

This post you’re reading right now is the world’s first HEY World post. And I published it by simply emailing this text directly to from my account. That was it.

We often think of email as something of a read API (e.g. get notifications from services), but it’s awfully cool as a write API as well, sending content and instructions to services.

Smead Podcast 157: Five Email Management Strategies

This is from back in 2017. I just want to make sure I get it logged here as I want to make sure I understand what the general advice for email management is out there in the universe.

Certified Professional Organizer Debbie Rosemont discusses email and how to tackle it before it gets out of control.

  1. Reduce how much email you have coming in. Unsubscribe. The more you send, the more you get.
  2. You can do email intermitantly.
  3. Process email to zero. Processing is different than reading, processing is making a decison, not just reading.

(They don’t get to the last two.)

I don’t dislike any of the tips really, I just find them to be the same ones I’ve read over and over and over. They had precious little time to talk, so fair enough, but I also find they lack the nuance of real productivity. For example, there are different ways to be productive with time spend in your inbox.

Washington Post: Overwhelmed by email? Here’s how to get that inbox under control.

Angela Haupt:

Marsha Egan has a theory: You either control your email, or it controls you.

I have 21,000 unread messages — in my personal account, not others I use for work — so it’s safe to say I fall into the latter camp. Email overwhelm can be crippling: Good intentions to read every interesting newsletter or respond to old friends are flattened by a constant deluge of more, more and more messages, some marked “urgent” or accompanied by chains that take an hour to decipher.

“Email has become the biggest and worst interrupter the universe has ever experienced,” says Egan, a workplace productivity coach and author of “Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence.” “It’s cheap, it’s immediate, and you can copy 200 people if you want to.”

It’s also, many would agree, a giant headache and time suck.

The article goes on to list a bunch of advice for dealing with email. I like it! Here are the headlines of advice:

  • Check your email just a few times a day.
  • Adhere to the four Ds: do, delete, delegate, defer.
  • Turn off notifications.
  • Install useful browser extensions.
  • Don’t think of your inbox as a to-do list.
  • Get good at finding emails.
  • Unsubscribe aggressively.
  • Don’t obsess over Inbox Zero.
  • Don’t use email for urgent communications.
  • Work with colleagues on best practices.
  • Skip the late-night messages.

When I read through these, I have a weird sinking feeling. Is this the kind of thing I want to say with this site too? That’s certainly been my message at times. No exotic technology. No power poses. Not even any dramatic alterations to what you already do. Just adjustments to your relationship with email to get to a healthier place, so that you can start leveraging it better. Being more proactive rather than always reactionary.

It worries me that that advice then becomes… boring. Not that Angela’s article is terribly boring, it’s just all stuff that seems pretty surface level and that I think we’ve all read before. Part of me thinks that boring advice is sometimes OK, people need to hear the basics over and over so they sink in. But another part of me thinks that I’m not really digging deep enough here if I’m just going to echo boring advice.

Just take the first one: “Check your email just a few times a day.” OK, I get it. Email can be a time sink if you dwell in there, so don’t. Get in and get out. I bet that works for a lot of people. But actually, without looking any further than myself, it doesn’t work for everyone. I keep my email open all day and it doesn’t bother me. It’s like a command center for me. I do other work (blog, write code, do meetings) and manage my email all day, and I like it, it’s fine.

But maybe that works for me because of a combination of things. Like this one: “Unsubscribe aggressively.” That’s me. I unsubscribe from things every day. I’m constantly pruning what gets to come into my inbox. And because of that, it makes it manageable to live in there a lot.

Analyzing my own behaviors is one thing, but I have a feeling these combinations of behaviors are unique to everyone, and that there is more to uncover there. Are there people that actually like email notifications and they make them more productive? Probably—but why is that? Are there people that actually go for zero emails in the inbox every time they check it? Or is Inbox A Couple an OK strategy too? I hope to keep exploring this kind of stuff over time.

Different Ways of Being Productive in your Inbox

The classic way of being productive in your email inbox is:

  1. Open Inbox
  2. Read new emails
  3. Respond to things
  4. Reduce inbox to zero or as close as you can with the time you have

But that’s not the only way to be productive. Say you’re in a situation where you can’t really do good reply emails. Maybe you’re on your phone and the tiny keyboard isn’t good enough for a proper reply. Or you just aren’t in the brain space for writing. But reading is OK — you feel like reading. Productivity can be:

  1. Open Inbox
  2. Read each email in the inbox with a fresh mind and with zero pressure to actually reply right now
  3. Imagine what the reply might be like, later. Give your brain a chance to chew on it.
  4. That’s it

There is other work you can do even if you aren’t in the mood for replying: janitorial work! Say you’ve come back from a few days off and the inbox is bulging. An entirely productive thing to do is:

  1. Open Inbox
  2. Swipe away all the emails that don’t need any action from you
  3. Take the opportunity to unsubscribe from things that you can just tell you don’t need in your inbox anymore like ever
  4. Leave alone the stuff that will need more thought, later
  5. That’s it

Here’s another one.

  1. Open Inbox
  2. Look at that one haunting email in there that you know is the most difficult or most effort to answer
  3. Just deal with that one
  4. That’s it

Big Mail

I can’t help but be fascinated when new email clients drop. Like I want to be convinced. Email is such a big part of my life, I both want these things:

  1. to mix things up and keep the job of doing email feeling fresh
  2. to not upset the current bar of productivity

So if it’s not fairly obvious fairly quickly that a new email client will quite literally make me more productive, I just end up reverting back to the old muscle memory of the client I already use.

The latest hot email client that I’ve come across is Big Mail. Looks like the big promise is AI-based categorization of emails. I don’t know that I need that? But hey maybe? I don’t wanna be afraid of new ideas. Then there are sorta dangerous ideas mixed in here, like The Bouncer. Emails from new senders appear in here before you see them in your inbox, so you have to manually approve them. I think that’s how Hey works too. That might be really neat for a brand new email account, but dangerous for someone not expecting or used to that feature who’s had this public email address for decades.

See? I’m already looking for reasons to not like it. I don’t wanna be like that, but alas. Just minutes after setting it up…

  • It would show me emails in my inbox, but show a seemingly infinite loading spinner awkwardly placed.
  • After the email did load, several of them had so much white space at the top of them, I had to scroll super far down to read the email. Same email not like that in any other client.
  • I can’t configure the shortcuts, so my muscle memory is already shattered.
  • Some emails that are rolled up together and treated as one in my main client are split into multiple emails in here.

Ugh — that’s enough for me. I don’t hate it, I just don’t even get a whiff of why this would benefit me. I suspect it’s best for those people with massive unweildly inboxes, where a smart computer sifting through thousands of unmanaged emails actually will help organize them and uncover important things.

Dan Moren of Six Colors experienced a similar vibe. He found some interesting things, but also some difficult hurdles, especially for someone dipping their toes into switching:

There’s another sticky wicket with Big Mail’s approach: while I appreciate that it doesn’t touch my email account’s organizational hierarchy so that if I do pop over to another email client, my messages haven’t been moved into weird folders and whatnot, it also means that those ignored messages…well, they are literally ignored, meaning that they will sit in your inbox, unread. Seemingly forever.

And ultimately I agree with the take:

Look, I get that a lot of these are things that can be chalked up to my personal usage of email. But the very longevity of email’s existence makes it by definition personal. Many people have been dealing with email for decades, and we all have our own systems—there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

The trick to email is finding a client that jives with you and building up your strategy over the long term. The strategy is more important than the client, so the long as the client doesn’t get in your way.