TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter – April 2007

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The Most Ridiculous Invention EverFool Icon

Imagine an inventor came to you to seek funding for a new idea: an innovative way of communicating with other people. Using this system, you could easily create a message that'd get delivered almost instantly to nearly anyone in the world at no cost. Wow. Sounds great. However, I'm quite sure that before you invested a dime of your hard-earned money, you'd check it out thoroughly. What if your due diligence uncovered these "issues?":

  • There's no guarantee your message would ever get delivered.

  • If delivered, there'd be no way to tell if the recipient viewed it or not.

  • If viewed by your intended recipient, the message could look radically different than what you sent.

  • Other people could convincingly pretend to be you and send fraudulent messages in your name.

  • The system could stop working at any time, for an unknowable duration.

  • With the push of a button, you could ruin your reputation and derail your career.

  • As a byproduct of using the system, you would become the recipient of a continuous stream of offensive or deceptive messages, with no practical way to stop them.

Of course, this isn't a new invention. I'm talking about email.

Email has become an integral part of the lives of nearly everyone I know. It has transformed the way most of us live, learn, and work. It's simply incredible how this inherently flawed and fragile technology has become so pervasive. It's as if the skateboard became the fundamental basis of our global transportation infrastructure! Yeah, you can do some cool tricks if you've got the skilz, but it's not the greatest way to get from here to there...

Nonetheless, email as we know it is here to stay. Any comprehensive tech solution to its problems will come much later. (Check back with me in 2017.) In the meantime, it's up to each of us to cope individually. That coping strategy has several aspects, which I'll cover in this letter and perhaps several more to come.

There's a bit of danger for me in writing articles like these. Why should you listen to what I have to say about the subject? When it comes to email, everybody's an expert (because they use it every day). Well, just because you eat food every day doesn't make you an expert on haute cuisine. Can we agree there are some important things still to be learned?

Group Email
One of the most powerful aspects of email is the ability to communicate with a large group of people at virtually zero cost. This fact, of course, hasn't been lost on the spammers. Because of these sleazebags, our ability to send group emails to people who WANT to receive them has been severely impaired. The often draconian spam-blocking measures adopted by ISPs and corporate IT departments has made life mighty difficult for honest, hardworking folks who just want to correspond with friends, associates, and affinity group members. Because of the selfishness and avarice of a few bad apples, hundreds of millions of people are inconvenienced daily, and email's utility is greatly diminished.

For example, I used to recommend using the BCC field to send group emails (instead of ganging everyone's email addresses on the TO or CC fields). Doing that ensured each person's privacy and prevented "harvesting" of email addresses. However, I no longer advocate using BCC. Sending emails that way will virtually ensure non-delivery, as they'll be caught in the indiscriminate spam filter net.

Nowadays, I strongly recommend using a newsletter-type delivery host service like Roving or MailerMailer (which publishes the Urbach Letter), for one-to-many emailing and a discussion-board ("ListServ") service for many-to-many communications. One ListServ I use is called DiscussThis. Another is Sparklist. These service provider companies have full-time staff who do nothing but try to ensure their clients' messages aren't caught in spam filters.

Even if you're not interested in group email, you're still affected by the "spam-effect." Due to spam filtering, and the sheer volume of messages (both spam and benign) clogging our inboxes, you cannot ever assume that an email you've individually addressed to someone was actually received and viewed. If it's something important or time-sensitive, you must make a phone call as well. Too many e-babies are being tossed out with the e-bathwater these days.

Acceptable Response Time
If you give your email address out to people, it creates an expectation on their part that you're going to respond to their messages in a reasonable timeframe. So, what is that reasonable timeframe? I believe, for personal messages, it's 24 hours. However, what's reasonable for business email may be quite different. I'd say the maximum is 48 hours but in many cases it's a lot shorter than that. It varies a lot by industry. If the industry norm is 4 hours, and you let the sun set on your inbox, you could be losing customers because of that. I try to return messages the same business day, preferably the same morning or same afternoon. Having a Blackberry or Treo helps a lot with that.

Mobile Devices
Purchasing a Treo smartphone made a huge difference in my personal productivity. I used to be out-and-about for several hours and then return to a screen full of emails at the office: 20 or 30 messages stacked up (not including the junk, but ones that required an actual response of some sort). Often chewed up an hour clearing out the inbox. Now I just respond to them as they come at me throughout the day. I use "interstitial" time: waiting on line at the bank, between meetings, in the elevator, walking down the street, etc.

Lots of folks use mobile devices for reading and responding to email. You've heard the CrackBerry addict stories. It IS addictive, and we mobile users sometimes irk others by using our devices when good sense indicates we ought not to. I won't comment further on that. However, there is an important aspect to these devices that affects everybody. Whether you own one or not, you are likely communicating with someone who does. The email you're composing on your computer screen will certainly look a lot different on the mobile display. Most can't show graphics, tables, and fancy text formatting. Furthermore, what remains will be reformatted to fit on the tiny screen.

Looking at a big document on a smartphone is anything but enjoyable. It's like peering through a keyhole. Therefore, you'd be wise to keep things really short and sweet when you know your recipient is a mobile user. Put your most important points in the first sentence or two; any further down and they likely won't get noticed. Also, remember most mobile users have trouble opening attachments of any kind. Summarize the attachment's content in the main body of your email.

The Auto Annoyer
You send an email to somebody, perhaps with a question or a request. A few minutes later, you get a message back: "Out of Office AutoReply…" informing you the person is at a client location, attending a seminar, on vacation, or some such. Well thanks for that information but how does it help you get your question answered or request fulfilled? Most folks find these autoreply messages more annoying than informative. Frankly, we don't care that you're out of the office. We do care that you've shifted your problem on to us. An autoreply says: "I can't be bothered by your message. You deal with it." Instead of doing this to people you ostensibly care about, perhaps you should figure out how to check your email remotely or forward it internally to somebody who can cover for you.

A particularly annoying form of auto-reply is the "challenge/response" spam blocker. You get back a robotic reply to your message saying something like, "I've started using SpamRid to limit the amount of spam email I get. You'll have to enter this hard-to-figure-out letter/number combination into the box if you want your email delivered to me." Ugh! I'd never use anything like that. (Because it would telegraph the message, "I've decided to make my spam problem your spam problem… but that's okay because I'm much busier and more important than you.")

The Emotion Filter
Don't use a screwdriver as a hammer. Choose the right tool for the job. Sometimes that means picking up the phone. Email is a poor medium for communicating anything sensitive. It quite effectively strips the humanity from your message. Your funny, sarcastic remarks are likely to be interpreted much more negatively than you intended. Likewise, unless you're a truly gifted writer, your caring heartfelt sentiments will be mostly lost in transit. But that's not the worst part. Even though email frequently fails to effectively convey your emotions, it does seem to transmit anger quite well – even if that's not what you intended.

While you have to be especially careful on the sending side, don't jump to conclusions when you receive an email from an apparently angry sender. More often than not, it's not as dire as you think. Instead of firing back a blistering reply, quote the portion that's upsetting you and ask for clarification. Say what you think it means and ask if you're right or wrong.

Do yourself a favor. Read the words you just wrote before you click send. Read the email carefully. Does it make sense? Any typos? Take 10 extra seconds to ensure that your email will make a professional impression. If you don't know the difference between its and it's, or between their and they're, get yourself a copy of Strunk and White (or read "The Elements of Style" online at Bartleby). And do I need to caution you to avoid cryptic, gizmotic txting expressions? Remember, vowels are your friends.

Focus and Flow
A well-known professor of psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, analyzed something remarkable that many of us have experienced (but may not have realized was a recognized, shared phenomenon.) In his book, "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" Professor Csikszentmihalyi described "Flow" as a deep cognitive state characterized by very high levels of creativity and productivity. When you're in it, you can produce a lot more excellent work in an hour than an ordinary mortal would get done in a full day. Unfortunately, it's easy to break out of the Flow State. That damn incoming email chime will do it every time. Unless you possess extraordinary self-control, you'll stop what you're doing and see what just came in. Fortunately, the solution is easy. Turn that freakin' chime off. If you don't know how, just ask your office geek. Even better, if you or that geek have the smarts, you could set up "Rules" so that only high-priority emails from certain important people ring the bell. Everything else comes in silently. In addition, many smart folks are turning off the automatic checking for new messages every 5 minutes and instead pull down new emails manually (by clicking send/receive), just two or three times a day.

Breaking out of flow isn't restricted to inbound emails. A computer on your desktop or lap is the ultimate distraction device. So stop fiddling with your Netflix queue, checking the weather forecast, bidding on your eBay auction, posting on forums, and the 100 other "quick" things that add up to hours of lost productivity each day. (But that's a subject for a completely different future article.)

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(c) Copyright 2002-2010 Victor Urbach
This article may be reprinted with permission and attribution