Saturday, November 22, 2014

Verdict on a (mostly) Bacn-free week of e-mail: totally awesome!

It’s been one week since I tabulated my e-mail and decided to run a few experiments based on the results. Quick recap: I found that I got a lot of Bacn (solicited but often unimportant e-mail, like tables of contents and seminar announcements), and this was contributing to a sense of being overwhelmed by e-mail. So I resolved to do the following:
  1. Filter out primary conveyors of Bacn to a Bacn folder that I would skim through rapidly just a few times a day.
  2. Deal decisively with the e-mail when I read it–either reply or get off the pot, so to speak.
Quick summary is that this experiment has been a great success! I feel much more efficient, less overwhelmed, and less likely to miss important things. Highly recommended.

Here’s a few more details. So I have two e-mail addresses. For the most part, one of them gets all my work e-mail, and the other one is mostly personal, but has a lot of Bacn and spam in it. Before, I had been combining both into my inbox. So that was easy: just check my work e-mail and separate out the personal one to check over on an as needed basis. Of course, I’m still getting a lot of Bacn on my work e-mail, so I then made filters to automatically file Bacn into a separate folder. I initially thought this was going to be super simple. Turns out it was a bit more work than I thought: there are MANY different Bacn providers at Penn. So it took a while to set up a filter for each of them. But it worked: almost all the Bacn went to a specific folder.

The results were glorious! I found I spent much less time looking through all these unimportant e-mails during the day, and then I could batch process them much more efficiently during a period of downtime. There is little better than selecting a huge block of e-mail and deleting them all at once! A few times, I would get a real e-mail from a Bacner that I needed to respond to, but it turns out that they were never urgent nor terribly important, and I could deal with them during this downtime period (which is probably when I should be dealing with them anyway).

I didn’t anticipate how much this e-mail filtering would engender peace of mind. I guess I was expending more mental energy that I thought processing all these different e-mails in a single stream. The steady stream of notifications that we all know we should ignore but don’t thinned out considerably, and I felt like my focus was better. I didn’t quantify actual productivity gains there may have been (although I suspect there was some), but I can definitely say that the perceived quality of e-mail life went up considerably. Definitely felt like I was in much more control over what I was doing. Basically, it made it much easier to process e-mail the way I always knew I should in theory but rarely actually did in practice.

I think this filtering also really helped with the other aspect of my experiment, which was to be decisive (actually something I have been working on in general). The idea here was to read each e-mail only once before doing something with it, which means either marking as read or replying. Or at least getting as close to this ideal as possible. Since all the e-mails in front of me now have a similar status, I found it a bit easier to do this, because I’m not changing “modes” from one e-mail to the next.

Decisiveness is hard, and something I’ve struggled with for a long time, both in the context of e-mail or otherwise. And being deliberate is not necessarily a bad thing. But I think most of us tend to undervalue our time, and I feel like being decisive is making a tradeoff between making the best possible decision slowly and making a good enough decision quickly. Or, as is more often the case, making the best possible decision slowly and making the best possible decision quickly–indeed, I feel like much of the time, the “decision making process” is really more like a slow process of rationalizing a decision you’ve already essentially made. So I’m trying to just go with my instincts and then thinking, well, if I made a mistake, so be it. The key thing is to think to myself “Well, am I going to get any new information that might change my decision? If not, then go for it.” That actually takes care of a lot of situations, e-mail or otherwise.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that I got two e-mails this past week from close collaborators with the subject line "Not Bacn". :)

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