Email triage

0:00:00
It’s time. Grab the stopwatch, pack the laptop, and head out the door.
0:09:21
Sit down at a local coffee shop (one without wireless) with a cup of coffee and a muffin, and inventory the damage. Starting point: 63 emails in the inbox, 32 in @followup. The largest clump of messages (23) is from two weeks ago, which is when things got really bad. I’m fairly aggressive about dealing with emails “above the fold” (i.e., the new ones), but when they slip into need-to-scroll land, they risk getting stuck.
0:13:35
Catch myself in the trap of spending time giving thoughtful responses instead of triaging. The inbox is at 54. Re-commence filing and discarding.
0:38:26
Inbox is at zero! @followup now has 40 messages, the outbox has 2, and I’ve scribbled down 4 action items on paper. Not as bad as I’d expected, at least so far. Now to cull @followup.
0:50:55
After applying the “is there really a next step here that I care about taking?” test to everything in @followup, the count is now at 15. A few emails represented possibilities that had expired. One message is two years old, but it’s an outlier that really should go on a “someday, maybe” list.
1:02:49
@followup is down to 13, with 2 more emails in the outbox. Of what’s left, half require network access. Two are requests that I’m conflicted about, but will probably say “No” to. The remaining stuff in @followup represents 2-3 hours of work. Not as bad as I’d expected.
1:41:23
Finished a second cup of coffee, and some other laptop cleanup. I must have zoned out for a while; it doesn’t feel like a half-hour has passed.
2:00:55
Back at home, with wireless connectivity. 8 new emails; 7 are spam. The other requires a few minutes of investigation before dispatching.
2:12:52
One @followup was to renew a domain registration, which required shuffling through some paperwork. I won’t have to worry about that one for another 5 years.
2:17:49
One @followup was about an updated PDF for the Pragmatic Programmer’s Rails book, which required digging up my customer number. Meanwhile, the emails that I sent 17 minutes ago have already generated two responses. Doesn’t anyone have a life? Reply to one of them.
2:25:14
Filing expenses on-line rocks. Down to 11 in @followup.
2:29:29
Catch myself web surfing. Bad Dave. Meanwhile 2 more spams got through the filter.
2:37:18
Started to deal with another @followup, but it’s one that needs some thinking before I can decide which way to go, and I’m out of time this morning. The @followup count is still at 11.

Email

My email management pattern for the past few months has been to let it build up during the week—where “let it build up” means being aggressive without losing sleep—and then to use weekend mornings to get dug out from under—where “dug out from under” means getting my inbox down to zero, with anything active moved into either @followup or @pending. But my inbox hasn’t touched zero in over a month. Part of the problem recently has been failing spam filters, which has raised the nuisance factor.

The weekend starts tomorrow. The current count is 67 messages in the inbox, 32 in @followup, and 2 in @pending. (And 2,800+ messages in @readingpile, consisting mostly of newsletters and mailing list digests.) With past performance as an indicator, I expect to sink about 2 hours this weekend into getting my inbox to zero and 2-3 more dealing with stuff that needs to be followed up on. This doesn’t count making progress on various projects that need attention, though email slinging overlaps nicely with the pre-folding stages of the laundry pipeline. The reading pile—with past performance as an indicator—won’t get touched.

I’m gaining new sympathies with people who’ve sent curt replies when I expected longer, more thoughful responses. I have more “thoughtful reply” obligations that I have time right now.

The Bedside Reading Pile

When the pile of books by the side of the bed fell over, it was time for an inventory. I made three stacks: Not Started, Active, and Finished.

Stacks of Books

The books aren’t in any particular order top-to-bottom. The Not Started stack is just that—books that have piled up by the side of the bed waiting to be read. The Finished stack is also just that—books that I’m done with for the moment, but haven’t gotten around to shelving.

Looking at the Not Started stack, I see a few books that have been there for quite a while. A Random Walk Down Wall Street is one of those Must Read books, but has somehow never made it to the Must Start level. A Mist of Prophecies is from a great detective fiction series set in ancient Rome. I bought it to read on vacation, but forgot to pack it. Maybe next trip.

The Active stack is a combination of books that I’m working my way through for the first time (some of which I’ll probably only ever read a few sections of), and previously finished books that moved back into Active because I needed to look something up or wanted to reread a useful chapter. My Job Went to India is the most active of the Active (I read two chapters last night). Ajax on Rails is the latest buy. Working Effectively with Legacy Code gets returned to Active whenever I need to refresh myself on a particular set of techniques.

Building Scalable Web Sites and The War of Art are freshly finished reads; the other books in Finished are repeat visitors. (I probably won’t buy any more books on scaling sites—the information is stale by the time it makes it to paper.) Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method is headed back to Active; everything else goes to the shelves.

The stacks are heavily slanted towards technical and marketing. The few fiction books are still in the Not Started pile, for the simple reason that I tend to inhale fiction and then pass it along or return it to the library. The Not Started pile is also devoid of technical material. Again, a simple reason: I buy technical books based on need; they go right onto Active.

Like any snapshot, this one is both revealing and misleading. Looking at the stack, it’s easy to tell that I’m doing work in the “web space”, but one might suspect, seeing CSS, DHTML, and Ajax books, that I’m working on the front-end of a Rails application. True, but not entirely. The data modeling and SQL books are piled up in my study, as are books that would be more revealing about the specifics of my consulting work or current project. The C++ book on the Finished stack is a bit of misdirection. I pulled it off the shelf to re-read the sections on Commonality and Variability Analysis—a powerful, general-purpose technique that doesn’t get enough coverage elsewhere. The CSS books are to shore up a weak spot in my skill set. I can build solid web apps, but making them look good has been a challenge.

Symbolic importance and seating

We carry a lot of patterning with us from childhood, and it nudges us along in invisible ways. Try this one:

When you enter a space that has rows of seating and a center aisle (say, at a conference or some other room set up for presentations), is there an area of seating that you tend towards out of habit? Say, mid-section on a particular side, or always in the third row, or always in the back?

Now, think back to when you were a child. Where did your family tend to sit in church, synagogue, or whatever place of worship you attended? (If that doesn’t apply, where did your family tend to sit in a theater.)

Any connection?

For me, yes. A third of the way back from the front on the left side. Seeing this connection was a small “oh, wow” moment.

The seating question is a slight variation of one from Amy Schwab and David Schmaltz of True North Consulting. We had a catch-up lunch the other day while they were in town. The discussion touched on the hidden symbolic importance of work space configurations, and now has me wondering whether there’s any corellation between sharing a room as a child and a preference for a solo office versus a shared work space. That might go toward exlaining why pair programming in an open seating environment works well for some people but induces allergic reactions in others.

My GTD Nightmare

My version of the Getting Things Done nightmare goes like this: I’ve just completed a weekly mind sweep, getting lots of messy stuff converted to Next Actions on 3×5 cards—stuff so messy that I can’t keep it straight in my head. I’m gathering the cards up to leave for some important appointment when I notice that one of the cards—the Agendas card—is missing. Without it, I have no idea who I’m supposed to talk to, or about what. And there’s urgent stuff that needs doing! I’m fanning through the cards in a growing panic when I notice another card has gone missing. But before I can figure out which card it is, the alarm goes off.

At least it’s not that “trying desparately to find the final exam for the class I never bothered to go to or even buy the textbook for” nightmare, or its “oops, I found the exam, but seem to have forgotten to put on pants” variation.

Whiteboards and Cameras

You’ve spent the last fifty-five minutes of the meeting capturing information on the whiteboard, but you’re about to lose the room. People are already lined up outside the door, and you know the first thing they’ll do is erase the board. Or perhaps you’ve been discussing sensitive issues, and erasing the board is something you need to do before giving up the room. What becomes of the information?

Teams often rely on a designated scribe to take notes and email them out or post them on a Wiki. If that’s as far as you go, you risk information loss or corruption. Scribing is hard, especially when things are moving fast and people are drawing diagrams. A good way to mitigate this risk is to take and post pictures. That means having a camera at hand. A working camera.

I went through a few months of “O.K., who has the team camera?” and “Oh nuts, who has fresh batteries?” before heading off to the local office supply store to buy a 3 megapixel Nikon Coolpix. It’s lived in my pack for two years now, along with a set of spare rechargeable batteries (which get regularly rotated through the “to be charged” pile). 3mp is just at the limit for taking good whiteboard pictures. I’ve tried 2mp, but the results weren’t useable. The one problem is the flash, which tends to white out an area of the whiteboard, requiring either multiple shots or shooting off-center, which leads to odd looking results. If the room is well-lit, I can often get by without flash, but it’s risky.

Digital camera technology has advanced a bit since I bought the Nikon. Image stabilization and higher sensitivity sensors are now readily available for a quite reasonable amount of money. So, for my birthday this year, I arranged (by “honey, I emailed you a URL with an idea for a present, and it’s on Sale!”) to get a 6 megapixel Lumix DMC-LZ5. Image stabilization, plus greater scene control options in software to handle lighting and exposure, means better whiteboard pictures. (And better non-whiteboard pictures, of course.)

My wife got the Nikon, and our daughter got my wife’s old Canon, which is the perfect sturdy camera for a 9 year old.