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.