Category: Filing

Tagwolf Version 1.6 Released

Earlier this week we have launched Tagwolf version 1.6.  This latest version, which is free for existing users, makes Tagwolf available to all Office users by adding support for Office 2013 and 64 bits versions of Office and further improves the features that we have added to the previous version. In this post we’ll give you a head’s up on this new release and also share some of our longer term projects with you.

Smoother User Experience

Besides the support for the additional Office (2013 and 64 bits) versions, the main changes compared to version 1.5 are further improvements in the way Tagwolf displays and lets you choose the right folders. Tagwolf now supports creating, deleting and renaming folders right from within the Tagwolf user interface. This can be done during filing, so that the disruption of your workflow is minimized. We have also added some features to guarantee that the folder you need is readily available even if Tagwolf cannot predict it: Folder Boost makes sure that newly created folders are always displayed as a filing option and Pinned Folders allow you to make certain folders permanently available as a filing option.

Finally we have also extended the conversation filing feature: 1-Click Conversation Filing can now be set as default mode of operation and File Conversation on Reply allows you to file the entire conversation when replying to an email in the conversation.

Improved Stability

With the number of potential user configurations increasing, ensuring a smooth integration of Tagwolf in all possible environments, at an optimal performance level becomes challenging. We have added configuration options that offer trade-offs between slightly decreased functionality and improved stability and performance, for cases where you would observe stability issues. We have also added the Retrain Existing Folders feature that allows a swift recovery of folder data in case of problems.

For a detailed description of the new features, please go to www.tagwolf.com.

What’s next?

In closing, we would like to give you a glimpse of the longer term future. We are always trying out new ideas all revolving around the use of machine learning to help in coping with information overload. One of these ideas is email labelling, an idea we have been playing around with from the beginning: use the same predictive technology to help users who want to apply labels or categories to their emails (the “Gmail scenario”).

We’re also closely following what’s happening in the Microsoft world and one of the major movements there is Office 365. We are tempted step into this area with a browser-based version of Tagwolf that will work with OWA and Office 365, to bring the potential of stress-free email management to even more users.

Most of these ideas are in the stage of early prototyping and before taking the next steps we’re definitely interested in your feedback:

Do you think any of the ideas above would be useful for you? Do you think of any other extensions or new features that would improve your Tagwolf experience?

Just let us know your thoughts on this and, in the meantime, we hope that this new Tagwolf release will continue to help you keep your inbox under control!

The Tagwolf team

Tagwolf v1.5 released

It is our great pleasure to announce the launch of Tagwolf version 1.5. This version (free for existing clients) enhances our existing product with great new features to make your email management even more efficient and to make you better equipped to deal with email overload and keep your inbox under control.

Compared to version 1, we have improved Tagwolf in several areas:

  • Better integration with your folder structure by including a Folder Search feature and a brand new Folder Wizard to get you started faster than ever.  We also added experimental support for filing to Public Folders and Shared Mailboxes.
  • Increased efficiency in the user interface: Conversation Filing to file entire conversations in one operation and Keyboard Shortcuts to control Tagwolf without using the mouse.
  • Technical improvements: we have given the internals a thorough work over to make the product more efficient and to iron out a series of small technical issues.

A full description of these new features is available on www.tagwolf.com, but below you can find a highlight on some of the new key features.

Conversation Filing:

We have had multiple requests for the possibility to file entire Outlook conversations in one operation. Indeed, most emails belong to an email conversation and in many cases filing the whole conversation instead of just the one email is the obvious thing to do. That’s what Conversation Filing does: one mouse click (or key stroke) will file all the emails in a conversation wherever they are stored.

Folder Search:

No matter how good Tagwolf is in finding the right folder to file an email, there still are cases where the folder you need is not available is not available on any of the Folder Selection Panels. In that case Folder Search offers a convenient way to find it, even if you are not sure about the name or the location of the folder. Just type in a few characters of one of the words in the folder name and Tagwolf will show only those folders whose names match the characters in the search box.

Keyboard Shortcuts and Folder Selection Panels:

For users who do not wish to use the task pane we now have two options. The Tagwolf menus in the Outlook ribbon or menu are still available and they have even been extended to give access to additional features such as conversation filing and undo/redo. On top of these menus we have added keyboard shortcuts that allow you to use these functions with simple keystrokes. These same menus and keystrokes now also have a user interface based on the same Selection Panels that are available in the task pane. This gives an optimal combination of ease of use and efficiency that many of our power users were looking for.

We encourage you to try out the new version and tell us about your experience.

Happy email filing!

The Tagwolf team

Any other business

Do you recognise the following situation? After cleaning up all the papers on your desk, you end up with a pile of things that refuse to fit in any of the folders, yet are too important to throw away? It happened to me all the time when I was still dealing with paper and it still happens when I’m filing emails to folders. I always feel irritated when this happens, even if I should know better.

It always reminds me something one of my management mentors used to say: “You know you’ve had a good meeting, when there is an agenda point ‘Any Other Business’ and when there are many points discussed under it.”

There is indeed something significant happening here, because “real life things” are causing this and the disturbance we feel is an important signal, informing us about these things and their refusal to fit in our structured view of the world (represented by our folder structure – our topology). These things potentially threaten the whole system and risk to take away the sense of harmony and control that we get by organising our emails in folders. And the uneasy feeling is there for a good reason. It’s an alert to make us deal with the phenomenon that is happening here.

The best name for this phenomenon is “entropy”, a term borrowed from physics where it indicates the degree of disorganisation of a system. It fits the situation we’re describing here very well, because the disorganisation indicates to what extent emails are not assignable to a category. It is real life stuff that refuses to fit in our nice and perfectly rational structure and a potential headache for systems like Tagwolf, because these systems do their predictions based on a structured view of the universe.

Get organised

Actually, there are three layers in the entropy that is threatening our inbox. The first layer is the initial entropy. It reflects the potential chaos we face when dealing with the enormous flood of information that we have to process every day. Handling this initial entropy shouldn’t bother us. After all, compared to an unorganised inbox, things can only get better and we have the discipline and time management techniques in place to deal with it. And, of course, we have Tagwolf to help us putting everything in its right place within our logical structured universe.

Stay organised

Then there is a second layer of entropy, which is a variation of the first or, rather, a threat to our effort to keep the first layer under control. It happens because reality is continuously changing, whereas the model we use of that reality is by definition static. The consequence is that the two are constantly drifting away from each other and that inevitably generates mental warning signals when stuff happens that doesn’t fit the model. These alerts are simply encouraging us to reflect on the new reality and to adapt our map of our universe (the folder structure) to it.

For us as users this challenge is simply one of having the mental flexibility to recognise the evolutions and to adapt to them, for the software on our computers it’s a lot tougher. Most systems rely on the assumption that nothing changes and use the dangerous idea that the past is a good predictor of the future. We knew that this was a challenge when we designed Tagwolf and we have addressed it successfully. We tested and tuned and tested and tuned again and again with as sole objective to build a system that gets its performance by following as closely and quickly as possible the user’s categorisation logic. We truly wanted to offer a solution which doesn’t require the users to change their filing habits, but that has the flexibility and learning abilities built in to adapt to these habits.

Any other business

That leaves the third layer of entropy, which is the true entropy. It represents the stuff that, no matter how adapted and well thought-through our categorisation systems are, refuses to fit in correctly. And of course that is a bit annoying, but this time the entropy and the resulting unease are telling us something else. They are just reminding us that that we’re dealing with real life stuff and that real life is what it is. The only thing we can do in this case is to accept it. And that is what I usually do by filing this stuff in a general purpose folder called ‘Other’ or ‘Various Stuff’ or something similar, just to get it out of the way.

Email is not dead yet, but maybe we should think about killing it

I had an interesting exchange of views with Aditya Kothadiya following his excellent blog post  Personal Email has become more of a Notification Medium and less of a Communication Medium.

Actually Aditya’s post made me think about several recent opinions expressed about the death of email, which seem to have been triggered by the raise of Facebook and Facebook’s announcement that they are adding an email feature to their services. Obviously we feel strongly about this, just having founded a business that claims to create value by optimising the use of email!

After thinking it over, my conclusion is that email is far from dead. Even if a lot of interactions will no longer go through email, but through more interactive, social-media channels, a lot of stuff will continue to arrive in the inbox. Now if you think about that remaining stuff and ask the question “is this really email and what is it doing in my inbox?” it opens up a whole new discussion. Many items in our inbox are there because it is convenient to have them there and no other or better medium is available. So, maybe with another improvement in our tooling, email is really doomed?

Are you sure you want to keep this (yes/no)?

During the discussion with Aditya, I came to the conclusion that there is a key distinction between communication where the message is important enough to keep and communication where the message can be disposed of after reading. This, in turn leads to the distinction between email as a communication medium, a tool that transports information, versus email as a repository, a tool where we store information. This distinction was a key point in Aditya’s post (hence the title) and it also links back my earlier post about reasons to file: we use email as a knowledge repository.

If Aditya is right that the pure communication aspect of email (the cases where I want to interact with somebody, but where there is no need to keep the message) will decrease and be replaced by communication through social networking, we should see the email overload problem decreasing immediately. This links back to one of my older posts, where I stated that part of the email overload problem is caused by a perverse long tail effect. The fact that certain communication will no longer flow through our inbox will decrease the number of emails that need to be treated even if they contain no important information, which will certainly decrease the workload for cleaning the inbox.

The Swiss Army Knife

It gets more interesting if you take this a step further. If there are only a few “disposable” emails left in your inbox, it implies that the other ones are valuable and that you want to keep them. So, on the one hand the use of email will decrease in favour of social media type communications, while on the other hand it will continue to be used for more important communications that require some form of record-keeping, something for which email wasn’t designed in the first place! The reason they are there is because email is so low threshold and versatile, so it’s the Swiss Army Knife of electronic interactions.

The questions is would you use your Swiss Army Knife to open a ten year old bottle of Bordeaux if you have a real corkscrew available?

I think that email’s fate is in our (I mean the technology people) hands.  By that mean that as soon as better universal repositories become available, email will disappear overnight. We will be left with packaged, universally accessible information, being exchanged and processed by smart readers and stored in evolved repositories.

In that case the only role for email would be to transfer these documents from one repository to another and for these exchanges there are already better and more reliable technologies available today. So in that scenario, email is indeed doomed…

Retrieve or search – Different ways of accessing filed emails

Whenever I need to access the ticketing and source control system we use for Tagwolf, I go into my email client, type “cloud” in the search box and hit enter. Somewhere in the top three hits is an email from my business partner informing me that the service with our cloud-based service provider is now operational. The email contains a sentence “… ticketing systems are now in the cloud.” and a bit further the URLs where I can actually access these systems. I click the one I want and am done!

What I describe is a search in my email repository, signalling that I have arrived at the last part in the series about my filing habits, covering how I search. It is also an excellent illustration of a point I made earlier in the series that my email repository is an important tool, my professional memory if you want.

But let’s get our concepts straightened out first. Actually, I may have created confusion by calling this post “how I search”, because there are two related concepts: one is retrieval, which is what we do when we want to find back something that we have stored somewhere; the other concept, which I’m doing in the example above, is electronically searching for an item stored somewhere. Searching is just one specific way of retrieval.

This last option -search- is a bonus we have received when switching to electronic information. Indeed, in the paper based systems of the old days, our only option to find back (retrieve) an item was to find its (physical) location. To make this activity feasible for larger repositories such as libraries with tens of thousands books, the items where organised in a structured arrangement, such as a classification by author. This structured arrangement is nothing else but the paper equivalent of the taxonomy or folder structure that I introduced as a key element of my email filing routines in the previous post.

And that brings us back to the electronic world of today and the way I go about retrieving filed emails. The electronic equivalent of looking something up in the library is manually browsing through my folders to find an email. I use this way of retrieving emails in two cases. The first is when I can’t find an email by doing a search and the second is when I want to do a systematic scan of one or more folders, for instance when I am producing a report and need all the emails linked to a certain topic. As said in the previous post, the characteristics of the folder structure are essential for this type of retrieval: folders with an unclear scope or a high number of emails will definitely turn this into a nightmare. If, on the other hand, the hierarchy helps me narrow down the target scope to arrive to a small set of emails, the folder structure can be extremely efficient to find back emails I need.

And then there is the bonus we got when switching to an electronic environment: search. You already saw one example of how I search for emails in the introduction. Search has a major drawback however. Its reliability depends entirely on the search terms used. This issue manifests itself in two ways. The first is that I know that I have an email about a certain topic somewhere, but can’t come up with the correct search terms to retrieve it. The second is more subtle and trickier: when I’m looking for several mails about a certain topic and get some search results using a certain set of keywords, how do I know that my result set is complete? Or, the opposite happens: I type in some search terms, but get back too many search results. In all these cases I often end up going manually through the folder structure anyway, just to make sure that I have the complete result set and nothing else.

So, if we look at the “bonus” that we get from search, we see that it is has its limitations and that in several cases, we have to go back to retrieving emails using the folder structure. And what about the small example I started the post with? I do use a search for that, but I can imagine some people being a bit surprised by that approach. Indeed, search is a clumsy way to accomplish what I’m after in that case. Search in that case provides a function that could be automated by a context aware application, which is part of our global vision as we explained in the post about context switching. Indeed, one of these cognitive assistants should be able to analyse the information I’m working on and associate a context with the activity I’m doing. A context in this case could be for instance a project, a customer, or another group of related emails that makes sense. Based on that context the application would provide me with all the relevant information I need for that context. Again I think that this “context retrieval” would use a taxonomy to accomplish this.

So retrieving filed emails (and information in general) relies on the folder structure in which the emails are stored. In certain specific cases, we can accelerate the retrieval by doing an electronic search, but it has its limitations. A well-structured folder structure or taxonomy is not only essential as fall-back solution when search is not appropriate, but is also something that will be the basis for interesting new solutions.

Are we headed for the second wave in the email productivity crisis?

Recently, information and email overload have been making headlines again. There was the LexisNexis 2010 International Workplace Productivity Survey of a month ago and a couple of days ago similar results from a study done in the UK were published here. People have been talking about email and information overload for a long time. According to this Washington Post Article from 2007 the term “email bankruptcy” dates from 1999 and Merlin Mann’s famous Inbox Zero video dates from 2007. Nevertheless, there seems to be a lot of renewed interest in the problem and that’s not really surprising, because it is only getting worse.

I think we’re headed for a second wave in this movement which could turn out to be a real tsunami. What’s happening is similar to the adoption curve for innovations: there was a first wave of email overload awareness starting two to three years ago. This wave impacted a limited number of people, consisting of three categories: early adopters of email, people with a specific interest in time management and productivity and finally people who already had a time management challenge not directly linked to email, senior executives for instance.  These “early aware” people are typically in a better position to deal with the problem than your average knowledge worker. They are tech savvy, have some sensitivity for process optimisation and they see the value of taking a step back to think about the way they work.

And that is what differentiates them from the second wave. As I said the problem didn’t really go away and now it has extended to a far larger portion of the knowledge workers. And this time the people being impacted are not prepared, are not equipped to deal with it and, more importantly, for many of them email is peripheral to their jobs.  This last point is crucial and requires some explanation. Although all knowledge workers have access to and use email, for many of them it is not the main tool they use. However they cannot live without it either because a small part of their activities relies on it or because they use email for social connections. So email is present and has an impact on their professional lives and that is enough for it to threaten their productivity. In addition, the LexisNexis study shows that it also decreases morale and increases stress, which could make performance deteriorate even more.

So we are headed for a situation where a large part of the knowledge workers are facing a big threat to their productivity and they are not well equipped to deal with it. Luckily we know from the first wave that solutions exist. We have talked about them in this blog: time management and other inbox management techniques and Tagwolf for email filing of course.

However, I think that, unlike the people in the first wave, the people in the second wave will not go and look for solutions themselves, but that the solutions will have to be provided to them by the organisations. So it is very likely that we will see massive campaigns of inbox management training and investment in additional tooling emerging over the next years.

Time management and email filing: You need the best of both worlds

With all the attention I have given to email filing in this blog, some readers may think that I consider email filing as a substitute for time management or productivity improvement methods, such as GTD. The contrary is true. I am strongly convinced that you need both and that they are perfectly complementary. Even more, I think that if for some hypothetical reason you had to choose between the two, time management would bring the biggest productivity improvement.

The explanation starts with the post about the inbox as a radar screen, where I explained that I use my inbox as a dashboard of the stuff that is active in my professional live. That radar analogy fits nicely to a routine of regularly scanning the inbox and managing the approaching deadlines associated to each email. In that analogy email filing is required to make sure that the number of dots on the radar screen remains below a certain threshold.

So what about time management? Time management helps you deal with the radar screen in a much more efficient manner. You can probably extend the analogy by saying that GTD, or an equivalent approach, is like powerful software that hides the radar from the user and replaces it by a higher level interface, where the user is presented with specific actions to take without having to think about what each dot stands for. More importantly, the frequency of scanning this interface can be drastically reduced, because GTD will ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.

So do we still need email filing then? Yes of course. Filing still comes into play when a dot needs to disappear from the radar. All time management methods provide a systematic approach for dealing with active emails. As soon as an email requires no further action, these methods will urge you to get rid of it as soon as possible. Obviously, deleting the email is an option, but as I have explained in this post, most people prefer to file their email and Tagwolf is there to make it very easy.

And what happens when you just file without any time management? I think the difference lies in the efficiency, the precision and peace of mind. By that I mean that without a time management routine in place, you spend more time obtaining a less satisfactory result, leaving you in a permanent state of worry that you’ve overlooked something.

This brings us back to the ideal situation I described in the post about different ways of filing: remain in control of your active emails by using GTD and file them as efficiently as possible as soon as you’re done.

Congratulations, it’s a taxonomy – Tips for structuring your email filing system

You may be surprised after reading the title: “A taxonomy? I didn’t know I had one.” Yes you do, like all of us people who file their emails in a (hierarchical) folder structure. And that folder structure is the next topic in my series about email filing best practices and I will share some insights about it with you today. These taxonomies are important tools that help us to handle information overload, because they put all the information we deal with in a familiar, more or less hierarchical structure and put each item in its context. They are probably highly personalised, so certain people would prefer to call them “folksonomies” (as explained here for example), but that would lead us too far. So, once again: congratulations with your taxonomy.

All philosophical discussions aside, I think the key issue here is productivity and to be precise, the time spent or lost because of your taxonomy. There are three moments when there can be an impact on productivity:

  1. Set-up and maintenance. Setting up a folder hierarchy is an upfront investment and keeping it up to date is an even bigger challenge, even if the time spent on it for each update may be limited. For many people this is a hurdle for even starting with email filing.
  2. During filing. Each time you file an email, you spend some time thinking about where do you want file it and where do you filed similar emails in the past. Again, some people (here is just one example) will advice against filing just to avoid this effort. Luckily it is one of the key areas where Tagwolf relieves the effort of filing, because Tagwolf answers these questions for you in most cases.
  3. During searching. I will go in a more detail about his in the last post in this series (“How I search”), but the point here is that your folder structure has an important impact on the time it takes you to find back emails.

Building on these productivity considerations, I have retained three principles that are the key to an efficient folder structure:

  1. Make your own. The main criterion is that the hierarchy works for you. Do not use something you’re uncomfortable with, because you’ll pay for it in time lost every time you use it. A folder hierarchy is never wrong and it will never be beautiful anyway, so the only measurement is whether it makes you more efficient.
  2. No perfectionism. Don’t waste too much of your precious time thinking about the perfect filing structure. Coming up with the perfect filing structure for all the emails you have received up to a certain point in time, would not only be a very time consuming task, it would also be a completely useless task. Any new email arriving afterwards could invalidate part of your carefully designed taxonomy. And this is what happens time and time again. So I would follow Seth Godin’s advice on this one too: instead of fighting the lost battle about perfectly structuring the past, your time is better spent adapting your taxonomy to new evolutions in your digital life. Again, Tagwolf is there to help, because one of the characteristics we aimed for in the design was the technology’s ability to adapt very quickly to any shifts in the taxonomy.
  3. It’s about numbers. The number of emails per folder is an important factor for the usability of the folder. We have seen a number of fifty emails per folder as a typical average and I think that’s a good number. If, in a worst case, you need to go through the emails in a folder one by one to find back something you need, fifty is doable, but thousand would be painful. It would also be an indication that the folder is too generic and that it would be more productive to break it down into smaller subfolders. If you have folders with significantly less than fifty emails, it will get increasingly difficult to remember what these folders are about, so for these you may consider merging them into more generic folders.

In summary, the ideal folder structure is like the proverbial moving target, never allowing us to have it set up perfectly. But even the next best thing is a great tool for bringing clarity in the information overload we experience, as long as we keep it up to date and bear in mind that it is all about making us more productive.

Situational email management – Four types of Email Filing Behaviour

I have arrived to the second post in the series about my email filing routines, addressing the question how I file. There are two aspects that I would like to explain. This post covers the way I actually file and a future post will explain how I have structured my folder hierarchy.

Actually I have found that that I (and other people I have worked with) have 4 types of behaviour for email filing, depending on the situation we’re in, as shown in the graph below.

There are two dimensions in this graph, one external and one internal. The vertical dimension is external. It is the stress level that our professional lives put on us. This “temperature” of our professional life will fluctuate over time and is not entirely under our control. The second dimension is horizontal and characterises our filing behaviour from structured and disciplined on the left to completely unstructured on the right. It is internal in the sense that it is almost entirely under our control.

Each of the quadrants in the graph corresponds to a type of filing behaviour:

1. Regular Filing.

This corresponds to the lower left quadrant. It is the ideal situation with professional stress at a relatively low level and a structured approach for managing our inboxes. Obviously we were all in this state when we just started using email. I think it’s near impossible to permanently stay in this state unless we have a system like GTD in place.

2. Priority Filing.

When stress levels rise, our disciplined approach is put under more and more pressure and we move up along the vertical axis to arrive in the upper left quadrant, doing Priority Filing. This is the approach for inbox management that I explained in the post about the inbox as radar. It is highly priority driven, is far from perfect but represents a delicate equilibrium between the different requirements.

3. Catch-up cleaning.

This is the lower right quadrant. It represents another way to move away from the ideal situation, but this time caused by our own lack of discipline. The situation typically arrives when we are not under a lot of stress, so can handle our inbox in a more unstructured ad-hoc way. For me personally it is a behaviour that often accompanies creative phases, when correctly handling my inbox is the least of my concerns.

4. Emergency cleaning.

This is the upper right quadrant.  We arrive there when one of the two intermediate cases degrades further, either because of a gradual loosening of discipline or because of increased or maintained stress, or a combination of the two. This is the worst case and it is very close to an email bankruptcy situation.

The key point here is that we should try to maintain the zen state of mind in the lower left, but are pulled to the critical situation in the upper right by two forces, shown by the grey arrows in the graph above:

1. External Pressure. This force is primarily driven by an externally imposed increase of workload and pressure. First we’ll be pulled up into the top left quarter, doing Inbox Priority Filing, but no matter how disciplined we are in doing that, it is not perfect. Some emails slip through the cracks and with each such email, the clutter in our inbox gradually increases. When the external pressure persists, this situation can ultimately lead to a vicious cycle where stress and the cluttered inbox enforce each other. In that case we’ll inevitably end up in the upper right quarter doing Emergency Cleaning.

2. Lack of Discipline. This force is in our heads and its full impact hits us when we least expect it. What happens is that our stress-free, almost empty, inbox gives us a false sense of security and we get sloppy. At first that is not a problem: we are in a calm period after all, so we gradually shift from the lower left to the lower right, with our filing becoming more ad-hoc, turning into Catch-up Cleaning. So far so good, but then something happens and the stress level spikes, catching us completely off guard. We’re badly prepared to deal with this and the risk of a mutually enforcing disorganisation and stress spiral becomes very real again, which would lead us again into the Emergency Cleaning upper right quarter.

If these two forces are trying to pull us into the dangerous upper right quadrant, how do we get back in calmer waters? Going down the right side is the easiest, because the second force fluctuates with the stress level.  This represents a full cycle that I have observed in many cases. It starts off with the stress increasing, moving to a situation of Priority Filing (upper left) and our inboxes getting out of control after a while. Then, in the second half of the cycle, we get a bit more breathing space and start cleaning up our inboxes (swearing “not to let this happen, ever again”), gradually regaining control over them and moving back to Catch-up Cleaning. Finally we’re back to where we started: with a fully controlled clean inbox, doing Regular Filing.

Knowing all this, what can we do about it?  Can we  prevent these forces from pushing us into the direction of more stress an disorganisation? Well, in the end it mostly boils down to managing the horizontal dimension, i.e. our own discipline, which is the only factor we control. We can accomplish this by sticking to rigorous inbox management routines, supported by tools like Tagwolf. That way we are definitely able to stay on the left side of the graph and most of the time in the lower left quadrant, with the occasional spike into the upper left during busy periods.

Tagwolf improves your productivity by smoothing context switches

In the previous post, I stated that the number of emails in your inbox does not necessarily imply a problem with time or priority management and that you can stay in full control of your inbox, even if it’s not empty. If you let it grow beyond a certain threshold however, the cluttered inbox will inevitably deteriorate your productivity. So, the question is what makes this situation flip from good to bad?

One of the devastating mechanisms at play here are context switches. Every time we need to switch from one email to the next, we are potentially exposed to a completely different context and our brains require some time to switch to that new context. This requires a significant time, with estimates varying, but Marsha Egan, author of Inbox Detox, mentions an average of four minutes for recovering from an attention interruption. Maybe switching from one email to the next doesn’t qualify as an attention interruption, but the impact remains considerable. It’s no surprise then that many of the time- and inbox management best practices are designed to decrease the impact of these context switches. Actually these methods are simply trying to decrease the number of context switches, because the time spent per switch is generally considered uncompressible.

I think that the IT community is busy fixing this situation, which it helped to create in the first place by inventing the technologies that produce the information overload. The solution consists of making the technology “context aware”, as explained here for instance. Tagwolf already takes a first step in decreasing the impact of context switches on your productivity. This happens in two ways, each one at a different point in the process.

The first point where Tagwolf relieves the impact is at the beginning, when you switch to another email. Tagwolf analyses the selected email and shows the most likely folder for it as the largest tag in a tag cloud. This gives you a rapid visual cue of what this email is about, even before reading it.  Like warming up an engine, it “primes” your mind and already restores the mental context you need in order to understand and rapidly deal with that message. Without Tagwolf you would have to build that context completely on your own by opening and reading the email, which means falling back to the classical context switch requiring a certain amount of time. This is also part of the larger vision behind Tagwolf: building a new class of personal tools –some people would call them “cognitive assistants” – that act as accelerators for your mind.

Tagwolf also helps at the end, when you are finished dealing with the email. At that point it’s back to good old time management ideas: when you’re finished with it, file it immediately so that you don’t need to open it again, when you want it out of your inbox. This doesn’t decrease the impact of a context switch, but avoids you a future one. And Tagwolf’s one-click filing makes sure that you can get the email filed with a minimal effort.

So we can feel overwhelmed in our professional lives by the never ending stream of information, often boosted by the technology that makes it easy to send and receive information, but it is possible to deal with it, if we use the right methods. And we are now even developing technology that relieves the pressure instead of increasing it.