Does your e-mail system need a better toaster? Information overload expert Nathan Zeldes believes so.
When alerts in Microsoft Outlook pop up, they can look like a piece of toast rising from the bottom of your screen. Most people by now have heard, and accepted, the advice to turn off alerts. But the Israel-based consultant, who got started confronting the information deluge while working for Intel 20 years ago, believes your Outlook needs to be fine-tuned so it can tell whether or not to interrupt you, based on what you're doing. So a better toaster, or in the language of techies, a contextual alert routing system.
When the e-mail comes in, the software determines whether to pop the toast or save it for later, based on the sender and topic, and what you are doing at the time. This can be discerned from your calendar or your keystrokes or even a microphone picking up your conversation. "It knows whether it's a good time," Mr. Zeldes said in an interview. "This is doable – it's being done."
He said investment bank Morgan Stanley has developed an experimental system, called Sift, which senses the user's work context and prioritizes messages using various parameters. Microsoft Corp. has also released a research paper on a version called Priorities, but not yet unveiled a commercial product.
In a recent self-published e-book bringing much of his writing together, Solutions to Information Overload, Mr. Zeldes points to a bevy of products that can help you tame your e-mail.
"The solutions are getting better and better. More applications are being built to deal with information overload from the ground up rather than just tacking something onto Outlook," he said in an interview.
An important step is to treat e-mails as tasks, not merely messages. He is watching with interest the development of Handle, which makes it easy to turn e-mails into appropriate tasks, for which you can assign urgency and timing restraints. It also can fill your calendar with the message-tasks you need to deal with. "This elegant application recognizes the often-needed fact that clearing the inbox is just half of the equation, the rest being work on the inherent tasks it brings in," Mr. Zeldes writes.
He's also a fan of Skimbox for mobile devices, which automatically sorts your messages into two heaps: Those you need to act on soon, the Mainbox, and those you can just skim through or ignore completely, the Skimbox. It uses factors such as your past interactions with the sender and keyword cues to sort; and it improves over time, based on how you react to its decisions.
Mr. Zeldes spells out five steps you can take to stop drowning in e-mail:
1. Boost inbox efficiency
This is an individual, not organizational, effort to improve how we handle e-mail. "It's the easiest to attack, as you don't need other people's help," he said. Yet he believes most of us are still failing to take the most significant step: reading e-mail only during a few designated slots during the day, so we can focus more intently on other work. Mr. Zeldes also recommends the "five weeks folder" approach he developed at Intel: If a message comes in and you are uncertain whether to delete or return to it later, put it in a folder that purges messages after five weeks (if it's a monthly report, a new one will have come by then).
2. Reduce quantity of e-mail
This involves an organizational effort, even if only at the team level, to cut the amount of e-mail. Best bet: Remove the Reply All button from your corporate e-mail software, so if someone wants to reply to everyone, they have to go through some hoops to accomplish that, rather than simply hit a convenient button. A more limited approach is to automatically remove "cc" recipients from Reply All, so that only prime recipients are involved. He also likes the idea of teams establishing "no e-mail" days, during which colleagues must talk to each other in person or by phone. "It's a big one that most organizations won't do," he said.
3. Improve quality of e-mail
A poorly worded, overly complicated e-mail wastes the time of all recipients, so organizations need to educate staff on how to send effective e-mail. "This is the highest leverage action you can take," he said, because so much time is spent decoding messages and issuing other e-mails asking for clarification. This effort must come from the top down, and probably should include training classes. Templates can also be developed so writers simply fill out designated sections such as what, when, why and details.
4. Stop interruptions by e-mail
A group can decide on quiet times when they will not interrupt each other by e-mail, which he said will increase productivity significantly.
5. Change organizational culture
This digs deeper, and involves changing ingrained patterns of behaviour so that people no longer send self-promotional e-mails (which nobody reads), and people don't feel they must respond immediately to every message, 24 hours a day.
Information overload keeps getting worse, but Mr. Zeldes is optimistic. "We aren't complacent. Things are changing," he said. "Many smart people are putting their brains to this issue and over the next 20 years, we'll see a lot of change."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter