Category: Time management

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.

Why WE launched an Email Startup

Why WE launched an Email Startup

There was a great post on Pluggd.in about email startups and reasons not start one. We have started Allometa, which definitely falls under the category of email startup, because Tagwolf is an email productivity add-in. So, I thought it would be interesting to share our view on this.

I think the author is fully right when he encourages startups to stay away from setting up new platforms or build new email clients, but to aim for some specific areas where there is still a lot of potential to add value.

The question is not whether the existing platforms and email clients are good enough or need improvement. Not even the more fundamental questions about email itself (Will it survive? Does it need fixing?) represent real opportunities for startups.

Email and the basic building blocks it runs on, are here to stay. Email is so widely used and deeply integrated in the business processes that any change to this will have to be incremental. And even if a disruptive change would happen in the areas of platforms or email clients, it would require a powerhouse to pull that off, certainly not a startup.

So we adopted a strategy of building on top of the existing systems. Tagwolf and the other tools we are thinking about address some of the issues of information overload, without requiring any change to the way people work or their tool set. In doing so, we do bring added value by addressing opportunities such as Information overload and semantic applications.

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.