Want to reduce email overload? Don’t use email for everything.
Most of us in the workplace are familiar with the term ‘triage’. It’s a way to rank things in order of importance or urgency about a given target, deadline or outcome.
For Dominique Jean Larre, surgeon-in-chief of the Napoleonic armies, his rule of triage was applied in treating those wounded in the battlefield. His setting was one of urgency and fast pace that required quick decision-making. Think of an emergency room. His challenge was to design a rule or method to best deal with the wounded in a practical way given the small number of medical staff.
His rules of triage
His rules of triage eventually developed into three categories:
- Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
- Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
- Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in the outcome.
This set of rules and reasoning are like a simple version of today’s sophisticated algorithms. If you are familiar with an algorithm, it’s a set of rules usually performed by a computer on how to solve a problem or complete a task. An example we experience often is the Google Page Rank algorithm that goes to work to serve you the most relevant search results for your search query.
Just like the Google Page Rank algorithm, we could say that Dominique Jean Larre’s rule of triage is a type of algorithm.
So, what’s your algorithm at work? What’s your attention algorithm?
Rather than treating the incoming wounded, most of us are treating our email inbox. What’s your method to sort through and rank all your communications and conversations at work?
What’s your attention algorithm?
Your attention algorithm is probably not too different to mine. Check deadlines and urgent matters first, then get around to less time-sensitive actions and lastly look at information for general awareness, learning and interest.
But when it comes to our email inbox, we don’t have a way to apply our attention algorithm effectively. It’s one big pile. We don’t know what to pay attention to first. I don’t know that the 48th email in my inbox is essential to my deadline this week without scanning my inbox. And this could take a while, as I’m usually distracted by the earlier emails. Usually because now that I’ve opened them, I might as well action them to clear my inbox, and reduce my anxiety. Our focus becomes clearing the mailbox, rather than priority first.
This is a design problem. The emails in my inbox are not organised by project or activity. And my inbox doesn’t separate emails that need my attention now, from others that can wait. Going through them one by one and triaging what to do with each one takes time. I want to jump straight to priority items without having to scan all my new unread items. We’ll soon see the answer lies not in one inbox, but many.
Anxiety! Not enough time!
When there’s no distinction between what I need to act right now, and what I can read up on later; I don’t have to tell you what happens next.
It’s gotten so bad that we have ways to disable reply to all, educating people on important subject lines, and even email free days. There’s a better way to cope than this!
So how do we get our time back? How do we get more time to focus on our work? How can we quickly get to what we need to pay attention to? How do we reduce our frustration and anxiety?
Option 1 – Smarter email systems
Outlook has taken a step in the right direction with their ‘Focus’ inbox feature. This gives you an additional bucket to your regular inbox. You can train your focus inbox by dragging emails that are important to you into it, so it can learn what’s important. You can also ask for all emails from a specific person to appear in the focus inbox.
Gmail has also made use of additional inboxes to your Primary inbox, called: Social (for social media notifications), Promotions (for email subscriptions, deals, promotions), and Updates (for confirmation emails, receipts, bills, and online statements). What’s right about this is that your emails are organised. Rather than scan through one big bucket, I can instead triage a more topic focused inbox. If emails from family and friends matter first, then visit your Primary inbox. Then visit the other mailboxes later. This way you are in charge, and you are not wasting time wading through one big bucket and feeling anxious.
Option 2 – Don’t use email for everything
Gmail is smart that it looks at the sender’s email address and format type of the email and places it in the assigned inbox. But this approach doesn’t apply at work. Gmail wouldn’t know that an email coming from Ben is about Project A and not Project B. It wouldn’t know to file Ben’s email in the Project A inbox.
Our problem with triage will only be solved if we work in a tool that is both organised and visible. By that, we mean all communications are not in one big box, but instead we communicate around a thing; such as a topic, a project, etc. And discussions ‘around this thing’ happens in a visible place online. Like I said earlier, the answer is multiple inboxes, not one.
For example, at Adopt & Embrace, we don’t use e-mail for internal communication. If it’s related to customer or internal projects, there’s a Microsoft Team space for that discussion. If it’s with your manager, we’re trialling 1:1 Teams for that as well. If it’s related to the business at large (i.e. not specific to a project), there are Yammer groups. We only really e-mail if someone externally needs to be involved. That is our Modern Workplace.
The catch with option 2 is that you don’t get transformation for free. Option 2 takes more than an individual; it takes a team (and eventually the organisation). If your team doesn’t adopt communicating in a new tool, then you don’t get the productivity and engagement benefits. But we can help you with that.
So, what can we learn from battlefield medicine when it comes to prioritising what we need to do at work.
My actions in my job won’t have as severe consequences if not done in priority as happens in casualty wards. But just the same, I have deadlines and people waiting for me. And the way I productively get through my communications and conversations matter to me, my team and the organisation.
To illustrate the modern workplace way of triaging your communications at work, I’ll use an example of returning to work from a 2-week vacation in New York. On my return, the first thing on my mind was that I had to prepare a customer presentation and workshop in 5-days’ time.
Lucky for me I didn’t return to one massive inbox with mixed content from multiple topics and projects. Instead, I returned to many inboxes that are focused on a topic or project. My triaging involved jumping to my priority inboxes first. Already I felt organised and in charge of getting up to speed with what mattered first.
Particular parties outside of my organisation get my attention first. I started with Outlook to look if there were any client or partner communications that I needed to action.
Already you can see here that I’m leaping to potential priority actions. Ie. Things I need to look at first.
I received an email from a Microsoft partner related to my pending presentation that I forwarded to the channel in a Team we set up for that project. And chatted with my colleagues on that post. Microsoft Teams was next because this is where we work on both internal and client projects.
Again, here you can see I have leapt to a portion of my communications only related to project work. I have not had to slog through irrelevant stuff to get here. This would be like saying to your email inbox, ‘out of all the unread emails, show me just those from internal and client projects’ …or better still, ‘show me just those about Project A.’
I visited my Teams activity bell notifications to look at conversations that involve me. These are conversations where I’ve been @mentioned, replies to my posts, and replies to posts I’ve replied on. The notifications I paid most attention to were related to more pressing deadlines. Some of the others that could wait till later were marked as unread or bookmarked
One of these notifications led me to the project channel within a Team where I needed to get work done by the end of the week. Here I was able to get up to speed on: conversations about presentation development and logistics, meetings about the coordination of the project, and the latest version of the presentation.
From here I started to get involved in those conversations and editing the files.
Rather than finding 50 emails in my inbox about all this (as well as the email conversations that would have forgotten to include me); I was able to take a self-serve approach of visiting the team channel and get up to speed.
Given this presentation was part of a national tour we did with multiple customers, we created a channel in the same Team for each customer. Even though I wasn’t involved in the other nine project channels, I visited those channels to gain information to help me with my presentation. I was also able to ask questions.
- Again, no need to pile up emails in someone else’s inbox, nor mine. I visited the rest of the Teams I’m involved in to see if there was anything new. You are made aware of new unread conversations because the name of the project in the Teams channel is bold.
One of these Teams was our weekly stand-up meetings. Since we record our video calls using Team meetings, I was able to re-stream the meetings I missed out on when I was on vacation.
- By now you can see that each Team is like an inbox, and I visit the inbox that matters most to me at any given time. There’s also my notifications activity bell that will inform me of things across all my teams that need my attention.Lastly, I looked at the Teams I’m a member of, but not involved in (to be more aware of what others are up to in general, and learn from my organisation)
Then I took the same approach for Yammer.
Not once did I use email to internally communicate, nor for file attachments in preparing for my presentation.
I have more situational awareness and less frustration and anxiety as I can see the status of things. I can only do this because our communications are organised in a place; whether it’s a project, topic, etc. More importantly, I can choose to jump directly to the inbox (i.e. the project or topic) that matters most to me at a point in time. And then get back to my other inboxes when I’m ready. Now it’s like all my TV shows are sorted by genre. Before it was like one big bucket of TV shows. If I were after a comedy, I’d have to go through the whole list passing drama’s, sci-fi, etc. And before I knew it, it would be too close to bedtime to end up watching a movie — a bit like not completing enough productive work at the end of the day.
Now imagine if you were my boss where he is ultimately accountable for a myriad of projects. He needs to be on top of all of it. Imagine his email inbox compared to mine, skyscraper proportions. He would be an absolute slave to his inbox; he would be a slave to chasing people for progress. Instead, his mailbox is low, and yet he has absolute situational awareness of the myriad projects going on in the organisation.
Triaging in the workplace has both similarities and differences with tending to the wounded on the battlefield. Your email inbox is the equivalent of the wounded coming in through the one door in the tent. And you apply the triage rule as they come in. But we can go one step better. We can go one level-up. We can have multiple tent doors or inboxes i.e. Yammer groups and Microsoft Teams. Some of those doors are more important to us than the others at various times. So, we start the triage one level-up by triaging the door we want to look at first.
Ultimately this approach enables the power to filter communications. Just pick the communication you want to focus on when you want to focus on it.
No more inbox overload.