The dysfunctional digital office (emails)

January 2018 has been a watershed moment for me for something very simple and important such as… emails. Back from Christmas Holidays after visiting family and friends in sunny Italy, I was confronted with a wall of emails like many other professionals and colleagues. I had experienced this every year for many years, but this time was different. I simply could not cope with it, I avoided responding emails for a while and I became ridiculously inefficient. I gather that this was some type of ‘dysfunctional digital office’ syndrome, that caused to me that extra level of anxiety that made me hopeless.

Most of you will understand the basic elements of what I am describing, but only those of you that have a very strong digital presence (or is famous, but that is not my case), no personal assistant, nor a every good method might have experienced this digital black-out.

I have always rejected advice on how to organize my emails, abhorred the concept of using random passwords (I’ll come to that), inbox rules (I like to see all emails I have to respond in the same place), split my personal and work emails (I have difficulties to separate my personal and work life anyway), etc. etc.

However, now that I have experienced this black-out and I had to invest weeks of work to re-emerge from this mess, I wish to not just give you some practical advice (there are plenty of websites for this), but to explain what others did not explain to me before: without an articulated strategy, if your digital presence is significant, soon or late you will not function. Better investing now, proactively, then later.

SPAM SPAM SPAM

Let me do a step back. The first symptom that something was going wrong is when I’ve lost a PhD student about one year ago. She wrote to me an email, but it went straight to the Junk e-mails folder and I noticed this only a month or so later, when it was too late to confirm my willingness to host her. A few false positives later, I disabled the SPAM filter. Flooded by SPAM, I simply deleted emails as fast as possible and started to complain with our IT Department (sorry guys! you have been great in helping me out). However, this was not the issue. I never had identify the root cause of he problem.

Moving again forward between January and February 2018, I discovered the problem, in the hard way. It was not just SPAM, which was about accounting to a third of my email traffic, but also the various mailing lists I subscribed for work (another third of emails), and various accounts of private use (TV, electricity company etc) making another significant fraction of the rest. Fixing this mess was going to be hard work, but one key element changed: the realization that the issue was not SPAM, but was just, er, … me.

Password management

One issue I faced immediately is that I could not look after all the tens of account I had created over the years. I use strong passwords, but all with a certain meaning to me and pattern. However, each website has different rules and my well-thought system included too many exceptions to remain memorable.

Eventually, I gave up and I really advise you, if you did not do it yet, to surrender. Get a password management system.

Yes, when I login to an account now I am slower than before as I need to open a digital password management system with a very strong password, and copy&paste a completely random and long password to each specific account. Of course, now my digital presence is secure, the time I used to waste resetting passwords is recovered and, very important, I have a constant overview of all accounts. This was a very important step to reorganize all that followed.

Rules, rules, rules

Next, I had identified the main problem (too much email traffic that did not require response) and secured all my accounts. Rather than focusing on getting rid of SPAM, for once, I decided to clear my inbox from emails I did not need for work (but were not unsolicited emails), or that at least did not require immediate response, if at all. I created various rules, one that captures most traffic from our procurement system and deliver the emails to a procurement folder. One that capture all emails from professional mailing lists, one for literature alerts, one for private emails and so on. The trick is to have the fewest possible set of rules and sub-folders. Pay attention, you will need to maintain these folders and rules on a weekly basis, or every day. This reorganization took several days (may be weeks) of full-time work. However, I have now got rid of a large majority of emails that are likely to never require response. Once a day, I check the lists and, in less than a minute, I clear several tens of emails and, occasionally, I respond or archive for follow-up a very few of them. This time-consuming, but trivial trick, saved my sanity (probably).

Private emails

I cannot deal with one InBox, why should I deal with two? It seemed a smart thing to redirect all my emails to my work account. Yes, for many years this worked, but finally it stopped to. With a password management system and with inbox rules, I got to have a clear picture of what could go away. Do I need to keep my electricity bill in my University email InBox? I have reviewed all my forty-something accounts, log in into each of them, reviewed alert (read SPAM) options for each of them, used my gmail account for anything that is private. The decision on most accounts is trivial, some is more challenging. Some of my social media accounts (LinkedIn and Twitter) and my website are private, but I use them for work. However, do a bit of work on your social media accounts to reduce notifications, or even add them into your SPAM filters. After all, Twitter users will contact you by twitter! Now, with the number of private emails minimized, there is even more clarity in front of your computer when you login in the morning. Do I wish to check private emails? Sure, I can do it once a week, not every day.

SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, and SPAM again

Who am I kidding? Of course SPAM is a huge problem, but now I have those few tens of emails that counts in the right place on screen and I need to get rid of the evil SPAM emails only, the rest is secured away. Unfortunately, the SPAM filters are rather ineffective, at least for me. SPAMmers (may they get Norovirus infections on a weekly basis) tend to be smarter than SPAM filters. When SPAM filters are tight, you lose emails as false positives. I am unsure if I got it right, but my strategy was to download an up-to-date list of known SPAM servers. This cuts a significant amount of SPAM, others can be flagged daily as Junk emails. However, these filters are still inefficient and what I do is to update my SPAM rules daily. I have just two. They scan for words in the headers or email addresses. All together, very effective and, after the initial work, time-efficient to maintain.

SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, still SPAM

In my case, at this stage of re-organization, my tens of good emails were the majority of emails in my InBox. Those few false negative are simple to handle. However, some colleagues at University of Cambridge and suppliers decided (you criminals!) to setup legitimate mailing lists utilizing commercial email re-distributions systems. Well, yes, they are SPAMmers and I have a few false positives. What I do is to add exceptions for the very few mailing lists or email addresses I consider important. The rest can get lost and colleagues or suppliers that use third-party services will not be able to reach me, which is the minimum they deserve considering they are giving my email address away. Most importantly, I give a fast check to the Junk email folder every morning, I rescue the now rare false positive and purge the rest straight away.

Professional chats

Now that SPAM is minimized and emails that do not require a response are dealt with, in my mailbox, I have mostly work-related emails that requires a response in my mailbox. However, several of them are brief messages from colleagues asking something, often cc-ed to many. These emails clutter the mailbox. They might be useful to keep for a while, and some contain important files and links that could be useful even after a long time. So, why not re-diverting all this email traffic to a specialized application?  For me, Slack was the solution, at least for the team of people I manage. I always thought that Slack was merely a glorified chat. Technically speaking it is true. However, Slack (or similar tools) can really help to avoid missing that very important emails that you really need to reply. Slack might even be a platform useful as a team-building experience, where employees may feel more as part of a team. Just be patient at the beginning. Some people experience insufficient uptake, and this will require proper management. I have experienced madness, with a Giphy storm that made me question the usefulness of Slack at first. However, after the first few days, my team started to use Slack efficiently. The occasional jokes, animated gifs, or ludicrous channels (e.g. SporeTrek), just help enjoying the working day, without accumulating rubbish in the mail inbox.

A new dawn at the office

I know, most of you, well, those two people that arrived to read my post until here, will consider what I have written an exaggeration. However, if you are a professional with a digital presence, I really advise you to take action before it is too late. Now, I come in the morning to the office and I do not dread opening Outlook. I feel like a ‘winner’, despite the occasional setbacks, and I spend a couple of minutes checking the self-archiving folders I have created, purge them and flag the rare email I wish to follow up. Then I move to the main mailbox, archive everything not important but worth archiving, delete what does not need to be remembered and immediately reply (and archive) everything that is simple (‘thank you for your assistance’, ‘we’ll meet later at 10’, etc etc). After that I have only a very few emails that requires significant amount of time to respond.

It is a few weeks that I have my main InBox with fewer than ten emails at the end of the working day. Now, I can keep track of what is important, I have still an archive of everything else, but – most important then everything else – I feel in control.

A lot of work is still ahead. I am a techie, but so low tech when comes to management. Now that my digital communications are sorted (mostly), with my public digital presence already looked after, I would have to roll-out digital project management solutions and digital laboratory notebooks. Lots to do, but after the madness I had experienced with something as simple as emails, I want to find the time, and invite you to if you still did not, to identify appropriate solutions to your digital problems. Otherwise, when your business will grow, you will experience outages of some sort and you will be surprised to find out that the main issue was, well, … you.

 

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Author: Alessandro

Please visit my website to know more about me and my research http://www.quantitative-microscopy.org

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