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.

The Inbox as a Radar – Why regularly scanning your inbox is not necessarily a bad thing

Our blog posts and other discussions on the web mention two approaches for inbox management, described by two related but distinct terms: cleaning versus emptying your inbox. The essential difference is that inbox cleaning doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of emails in your inbox to zero. “Isn’t that a bad thing?” you may ask, “it sounds like giving up before the work is done.”

Well, I don’t think so. To show why, I’m going to share part of my own inbox management routines with you. Actually I have several approaches for doing this, but the one I want to concentrate on today is the unstructured approach, which I fall back to when I’m very busy and don’t have time and patience for a structured and highly disciplined approach. The image I often use for this approach is the “Inbox as a Radar Screen”.

On a closer look, the image fits the inbox marvellously well. The dots on the screen are the emails in my inbox. They can be anything, any object big enough to reflect the waves will show up on the radar. And they are approaching. Of course they are: most items in the inbox have some sort of deadline attached to them, and these are approaching all the time. And what about the beam? The beam is what I do every time I look at my inbox, which is far too often according to best practices. Reading my email only once a day? I don’t think so. Introducing “email free days” once per week, as certain people argue? How would the captain of a submarine cruising the Persian Gulf react if you suggest him to turn off the radar, ‘because it’s Friday’? As in many cases, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but a simplistic approach ignoring emails systematically during certain periods doesn’t work for me.

So the beam turns and I scan my inbox –regularly. The number of bleeps is an indication of how busy I am and as long as there are not too many, I maintain the balance between knowing what’s happening and the inconveniences of being interrupted and the stress levels that go with it. I won’t say I’m doing fine, because the radar screen (my inbox) is just a projection after all. Whether I’m doing fine or not depends not on the inbox, but on the type and number of things that are happening in my professional life.

To maintain the balance, making sure that the radar screen doesn’t get swamped is essential. So I clean up my inbox, which is the easiest thing in the world because of Tagwolf, and I aim for a threshold (I don’t know its absolute value, but it’s somewhere between 50 and 100 emails). If the number of emails in my inbox is below that threshold, the radar works fine and gives an accurate image of my professional activity. If the number is higher, I start getting lost. Aiming for a number significantly lower is too ambitious and would feel awkward, because an empty radar screen is almost suspicious.

Question: Do you go for an empty inbox and manage to stay away from your email application for longer periods of time?

The devil is in the tail – Why spending less time per email is important.

In the last post I explained how the initial idea for Tagwolf was born. We boast that it brings an exponential productivity improvement to its users. The mathematicians among the readers will reply that that is an empty claim without the numbers behind it and others might say it’s just commercial blabber. My challenge for today is to feed you some math to substantiate these claims and to show you that there is indeed a productivity leverage hidden in the tail. “The tail?” you will say, “what is he on about?” Bear with me and you’ll find out.

You continued reading, so here is the story about the tail, which has become very important in the Internet age. Look at the graph below. It shows a plot of the relationship between the number of incoming documents and the workload each of them require on behalf of the receiver. On the left is how I think the situation was in the paper based world, before the internet. You probably recognise this as a normal distribution, meaning that most of the documents have a ranking of about 7 (on a scale between 0 – no work and 10 – a lot of work).  On the right is how I think the situation changed with the arrival of the Internet. The curve has lost its symmetry and the slope on the left side has become more gradual. Statisticians call this a “fat tail”.

This tail is typical for the internet: the phenomenal increase of available information implies a decrease of its average usefulness and precision. It is therefore more diluted across a greater number of documents and a strategy to concentrate on the top-n items has become more dangerous, because there is “more meat” in the tail.

Actually, you don’t need the math and the graphs to see my point as far as emails are concerned. As I said in the previous post, the number of emails we receive is huge and a lot of them require very little or no action, simply because the effort for sending an email is so low that people just send a lot of emails, even when it is not absolutely necessary. The same mechanism explains why the average processing time of an email is lower. Few people strive for perfection when they write an email, simply because it’s so easy to write another one to correct if needed. So people take less time to think before they send an email, and therefore it takes on average more emails to close an issue, but the average time per email is lower.  In summary that means that the same quantity of information is distributed over a greater number of emails, which increases the number of activities required to process the information.

This leaves us with a situation that is not so clear cut. The tail is not just fat – there is also some meat in it. This means that you cannot afford to simply ignore the many emails in the tail. But since there are so many, you also cannot afford to spend too much time on each one either. Now, if we look at where that time is spent exactly, the tedious operation of dragging and dropping an email to archive folders takes up a big chunk of it.  That is exactly where Tagwolf helps: by largely automating this part of filing, it reduces the time spent per mail. And as a bonus it also removes the irritating and repetitive aspect of it.

Actually our goal was to put our users in a position where the number of mouse clicks required for filing an email is exactly the same as the number of mouse clicks for simply closing it on your screen: 1. So the organised user can deal with an email and file it immediately. Less disciplined people, like me, still can deal with the mail and close it, knowing very well that after a certain amount of time, their inbox, or rather its tail, will start filling up and that they will have to start cleaning up the mess after a while. But even then Tagwolf will only require one mouse click to file the mail in the right folder, so we are proud to have accomplished our objective and we do think we have built a productivity booster.

Question: How important is filing for your inbox management?

The Dot Story – Where we got the idea for Tagwolf (Part 2)

So there we were, in the middle of the Internet revolution, which brought us email among many other things. The move to an electronic environment should have made things easier. Paper mail has been replaced by emails and the workload of classifying an email is significantly less than that of putting paper documents in binders. Everything is indeed easier but, let’s admit it, time management is still a big issue and staying in control of their own Inbox is a major source of headache for many people.  The problem is so big that a new term, email bankruptcy, has been invented for it.

There are two aspects to the problem. The first one is that email is a low threshold communication medium. It is very easy to write and send an email and it is even easier to put a trillion of people in copy. Spammers prove every day that you don’t even need to know a person to send him an email.

The second aspect brings me back to the dot story of part 1 of this post. For a multitude of bad reasons, when emails are concerned, we’re all behaving as junior managers with a lack of time management skills. Imagine yourself doing the dot exercise with your emails: every time you read an email (be it in the preview function in your mail client, or in the convenient popup in your taskbar, or on your smart phone or by simply opening it) mark it with a dot. The number of dots would be enormous, for the simple reason that it is so easy to open an email and to quickly close it again before we’ve completely dealt with it. The combination of  these two aspects, low threshold communication and lack of time management discipline put us in a situation with a significantly higher number of incoming documents to process and a much less efficient way of handling them, which in turn, probably results in an exponential decrease of productivity.

When I tried to take control of my inbox, remembering the old principles I learned many years ago, I stumbled on another excuse to discourage my good intentions: filing emails is a repetitive and, at least for me, incredibly irritating task. Browsing through a folder hierarchy either to identify the most appropriate folder or to navigate to the place of that folder in the hierarchy, can be very tedious. This problem is aggravated in the case that you are filing many emails belonging to the same topic and each time have to perform several mouse clicks to tell the software (AGAIN) where to put emails belonging to a certain conversation.  I can remember desperately crying out (in my head luckily): “You stupid computer! With all that CPU power and memory, you still haven’t figured out where to put this email!”

And that very mental explosion was the starting point for me to start thinking about a software solution, which, in the end, became Tagwolf. We succeeded in building a tool that automates the monotonous and repetitive part of the filing.  Now, even with Tagwolf it’s still a challenge to stay in control of your inbox. And it’s still the good old time management principles and other best practices that will help you do that. The difference is that using Tagwolf removes the irritating part of it and the result is a huge time saving. About this, however, I will discuss in a future post.

Question: Do you enjoy filing? If so, what’s your secret for making it bearable?

The Dot Story – Where we got the idea for Tagwolf (Part 1)

Back in the days when I was first promoted to a real management post, I received an “Inbox”. I mean the real thing, made of blue plastic, fresh out of its packaging, beautifully glowing and sitting on the corner of my desk. It was an unmistakable symbol of increased status, just as the documents that ended up there every day signified all the important matters I had to deal with and decisions that rested on my shoulders.

Before I knew it however, the little blue thing became an unmistakable symbol of my disorganisation, because it filled up in no time with a big unorganised stack of papers, all waiting for my undivided attention. But it never quite seemed to be the right moment to deal with them. My boss at that time, who had probably gone through the same phase himself, recognised the pile in the inbox as being one of the signals of me having a “time management problem.” He strongly suggested me to follow a time management training, where one of the things I was asked to do concerned that very blue inbox. I was asked to implement the following, very simple, routine: every time I picked up a document, I was to mark it with a dot. If I picked up a document and didn’t do anything with it, the dot would be blue; if I read it, the dot would be orange, and if I read it and finished whatever tasks the document required me to do and filed it right away, I would mark it with a red dot.

The purpose of the exercise was straightforward and probably makes sense to anybody who has had similar issues with managing priorities and completing multiple tasks while having only a limited amount of time. The number of dots per document was a measure of my (in)efficiency, because it expressed to what extent I had fragmented my time in dealing with each document. The final objective was to reach a situation with an empty inbox and a filing system filled with documents with as few dots as possible, and ideally only one, red dot indicating that I picked up the document, dealt with it and filed it immediately.

I don’t think I have ever achieved that Nirvana, but the training meant a great deal to me because it made me aware of the devastating effect of time fragmentation, and its methods helped me survive even during the most stressful periods of my professional career. I don’t think these methods were particularly original, because I have seen them explained in similar time management methods, such as the outstanding Getting Things Done® (GTD®) method of David Allen , described by Wired Magazine as A New Cult for the Info Age.

Indeed, we entered the information age, with all kinds of technology to make things easier and more efficient. But  we still ended up building Tagwolf. How that happened I’ll tell you in part 2 of this post.

Tagwolf 1.0.392 available

Tagwolf 1.0.392 (maintenance release) is now available from our download page.

Changes:

  • Fixed: problem during mail preview of mails without recipient mail addresses in advanced filing page
  • Fixed: problem with Outlook 2003 received date on rare occasions
  • Fixed: delay while accessing public folders (note:public folders are currently not supported for filing)
  • Fixed: corrections in French translations
  • New: better performance in filing page

Tagwolf 1.0 released. Special introductory price!

We’re happy to announce the first public release of  Tagwolf. Available on our download page.

Limited time offer: we offer a discount to celebrate the release of Tagwolf 1.0.
Click here for the special introductory price, valid until Sept 30, 2010.

Welcome to the Tagwolf blog

With the launch of Tagwolf 1.0 behind us, we are eager to get in touch with Tagwolfs’ brand new user community and everybody interested in the product and in email productivity in general.

Not that we didn’t get some great feedback already. We have been in a beta test program for almost a year and at this point we want to warmly thank all our beta testers for their patience, detailed feedback and suggestions we have received. Your help has made Tagwolf a better product. Thank you all!

But we hope the interchange doesn’t stop there. We have some things to share about why we built Tagwolf, and the more fundamental issues around it: email overload and time management. Expect more posts about that.

And we would love to hear what you think as well.  So feel free to comment here or post a question on our support forum.