Monday, December 12, 2016

Email Ninjerie in the Theater of Space-Time, or This Writer's 10 Point Protocol for Inbox 10 (ish)

BIG FAT CAVEAT: If you have a job and/or family situation that oblige you to use your smartphone like a bodily appendage, dear reader, a shower of metaphorical lotus petals upon you, but this post is not for you. Perhaps you might enjoy reading this post from 2012 instead. See you next Monday.

The challenge in a pistachio shell: How to maximize the quality of one's email, both incoming and outgoing, while minimizing the time and effort required to dispatch it all the while maintaining the blocks of uninterrupted time necessary for one's own writing?

What works for me may not work for you, dear reader, but I know that many of you are also writers, and a few of you are artists and/or scholars, so perhapsand here's hoping my time-tested 10 point protocol for dealing with email will be of as much help to you as it has been to me. 


A PRELIMINARY NOTE ON CONTEXT: 
EMAIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!RRRRRRR

How is a writer to cope with this snake-headed conundrum-o-rama that just about everyone everywhere has been wrestling with since it first emerged out of the DARPA-depths of this rapacious fabulosity we call the Internet?

I've been slogging it out with email for more years than I care to count. It was sometime in the mid-1990s when I logged on to my first account; I but fuzzily recall the roboty-dialup-and-connection sounds and an inky screen with neon-green text. A few years after that, I was using this cutting-edge thing called an AOL account. (Whew, AOL, Paleolithic!) Now I use a nearly-as-ancient yahoo account plus a pair of gmail accounts all funneled into ye olde Outlook Express inbox, i
nto which pour... pick your metaphor... 
(a) Rains!  
(b) Niagaras! 
(c) Avalanches! 
(d) Gigazoodles of emails!

As anyone who remembers the late 1990s will attest, it seemed that overnight email blossomed into a hot-house monster
or, I should say, a Macy's Parade of monsters and for me, by 2009-2010, when I was on tour for my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire at the same time that my father was in his last days, trying to cope with email, both professional and personal, had become a nightmare. 

In 2011-2012 I was tempted to follow the example of "Swiss Miss" blogger Tina Roth Eisenberg after her three months of maternity leave: Declare email bankruptcy. Many a time I was also tempted to remove my email address from my website. Neither of those strategies appealed to me, however; I appreciated so many of those messages, and I also appreciated that, apart from spam and the occasional bit of nonsense, behind those messages were relationships that I sincerely valued, even cherished.


I also realizedand this is something I am writing about in my book Far West Texas that hyper-connectivity along with endless carousels of hyper-palatable distractions are now woven into the very fabric of modern life. As long as the electric grid continues functioning, I doubt these forces impinging on one's experience of work, family, social life, politics, and travel, will diminish; on the contrary.


Over the past several years, chip by chip, I managed to whittle down that ghastly backlog (not to zero, but on some days it gets razor-close). More importantly, by trial, error, research, and mental muscle, I formulated a more workable strategy for dispatching the ongoing flow. 

Again, that caveat: this post is not for those who need to be continually available to a boss, colleagues, clients, friends, or family.



IT STARTED WITH SOME ILLUMINATING READING...

THEN THE FLOODLIGHTS SWITCHED ON WITH "THE MACHINE STOPS"

I gleaned many an insight and tip for managing email from:


+ David Allen's Getting Things Done;

+ Naomi Baron's Always On (a linguist's perspective on the current madness)

+ Matthew Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head


+ Neil Fiore's The Now Habit

+ Julie Morgenstern's Never Check Email in the Morning (also love her organizing books); and


Cal Newport's Deep Work (common sense on a silver platter).


All highly recommended.


For me the most enlightening reading of all, however, and strange to say, was a work of fiction from 1909: E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops." Astonishingly, that short story written more than a century ago by an Edwardian Englishman best known for his novel A Passage to India,  
envisions email, texting, Facetime, and the like. It also 
seems Forster anticipated the American diet built around corn-syrup heavy fast food. The main character, cocooned in technology, has turned into a heartless, incurious, yet hyper-connected blob. 
[[ Note, dear reader, that Forster had a pug.
This alone catapults him into the
Pantheon of the Greats.
Alas, it seems this was not Forster's own charming creature,
but Lady Ottoline Morrell's pug, Soie.
Check out Moffat's fascinating biography. ]]

On reading this sci-fi horror, I realized that one needs to evaluate a technology not by its gee-whiz-what-would-Steve-Jobs-say factor, but by how it affects the body. I mean, by how it affects one's human body, brains to toenails, now, here, on Planet Earth.



THE BODY AND TECHNOLOGY IN THE THEATER OF SPACE-TIME



(1) Assuming one can afford it, does a given technology help one realize one's conscious intentions born of free will? 

(2) Does using said technology cause one to serve or to neglect the body? 


(3) Is there a better available alternative?

These are the key questions to answer for a sense of the true and full (both monetary and nonmonetary) net cost / benefit of utilizing a given technology because if your body, which by the way, includes the brain, ends up not working the way it was meant to, well, in terms of going anywhere or doing anything or interacting with other people, that more than kind of sucks. 


Some metaphysicians argue that we are not our bodies, but in essence, immortal pinpoints of consciousness. It seems to me that if they're right, after we finish up here on Planet Earth, we have forever and eternity to do what immortal pinpoints of consciousness do; and if those metaphysicians are wrong, well, then they're wrong, and we won't be here anymore to argue with them about it anyway.

Either way, as I write this and you read this, we are conscious, each in our place in the Theater of Space-Time. We did not arrive here encased in technology, but in our human bodies, with all their pain and joy and bones and squishiness and awkwardness and grace. Why then would we want machines to do everything and our breathing for us
 unless, of course one has the crap-awful luck to require an iron lung? 

I want to utilize technology not to supplant but to enhance living this life
 this human life on Planet Earth.  Or, to use my new favorite metaphor, to enhance my experience of being here now in the Theater of Space-Time. 


Technology is not bad per se, of course; it can help us survive and even thrive. But last I checked, a quality human life requires being able to breathe, walk, see, hear, exercise, sleep, eat nutritious food and drink adequate clean water, soak up some beauty, and interact in multitudinous ways with other people. What good is a technology that turns us into blobs staring at and fiddling with screens all day, even as we neglect our relationships? (Or walk into oncoming traffic?) 

On the other hand, email, like pen-and-paper-correspondence of old, is one technology, a powerful one, that when properly employed can help us work with / get along with other people. And like pen-and-paper-correspondence of old, for a writer email can be a joy. 

Dead-simple observations, I'll grant you, gentle reader. 


Another dead-simple observation: Email is like any other tool in that it can be used to good or bad purpose. For example, you could use a hammer to pound down a nail that might otherwise snag your sweater, or, say, pulp your neighbor's pet goldfish (not recommended). 


And on the scale of expertise, one can use email poorly, or with world-class finesse. Let's say, my very Aristotelian aim has been to employ email reasonably well so that it may prove useful
 and without the mental drag of noodathipious fluffermuffer!


DOWN WITH NOODATHIPIOUS FLUFFERMUFFER!


Finally, after years of frustration and experimentation... drum roll....  I am no longer overwhelmed by email. I have not arrived at "inbox zero" because.... drum roll...  I am not dead! 


And knowing that I am not dead, other human beings in the Theater of Space-Time continually send me emails, and I, in turn, write them back. Ping, pong. And that Medusa's hair of a conundrum-o-rama about pinging the pongs and pongings the pings, and which pings to pong, etc., is now wrestled down, at least in my own mind, to a pretty little pretzel. 


YEAH, PUT SOME MUSTARD ON IT.


Now I can sincerely say that I welcome my correspondence (ahem, email). I love to hear from friends (lunch, yeah!), family (weddings, yay!), colleagues (congrats on your new book, lotus petals upon you!), and from readers, known to me or not, I always appreciate a kind and/or thoughtful word about my books / some subject of interest / relevant to my work. I even appreciate cat videos! (Just kidding about the cat videos. But cousin A., I don't mind if you send me a cat video.)


Herewith:



1. SCHEDULED BATCHING


[[ CLICK HERE for your free 
online countdown stopwatch ]]

For me, of all the 10 points in my method, processing emails not one or two or three at a whim, but in scheduled batches was the game-changer. 


I usually do 20 minutes of email processing with a stopwatch. It's not that I am trying to hurry through my email, but rather, I am respecting the limits of my brain's ability to effectively focus on it. I'm a speed-reader and I can type faster than lickety-split, but on most days I can deal with email for only about 20 minutes before my brain cells run low on glucose and I end up scrolling up and down the screen, dithering, feeling scattered in short, procrastinating. (You might be able to do 10 minutes, or, say, an hour in one go of course, not everyone's energy to focus on their email is the same, or the same every day and in every circumstance. One can always set the stopwatch for a different amount of time.) 

Don't believe me about batching? Check out the extra-crunchy research at MIT (PDF). 

By processing email in 20 minute batches, when the sessions all add up over the arc of the day, I find that I accomplish more in, say, one hour of three separate 20 minute sessions than I would have had I plowed on for an hour straight.


When the stopwatch dings, I do not expect to have finished
 "inbox zero" is a fata morgana! And that's OK, because I have another email batch session already scheduled (a few hours later, or five minutes later. It's important to take a break, at the very least stand up and stretch.)


Above all, because I am focussing on email at my convenience, on my schedule, my attention is no longer so fractured. I need not attempt to wrestle with each and every email as it comes in; and of course, some emails cannot or should not be answered immediately. I aim to dispatch the average daily inflow. In other words, if, net of spam, I receive an average of 30 emails per day, then I should be averaging 30 emails dispatched per day they need not be one and the same emails. One day I might dispatch 50, and another day, 10. The point is, there's no there there, as long as my email account is working, barring volcanic explosions of a geological nature, I'm probably never in this lifetime going to get to inbox zero. What matters is maintaining a consistently adequate dispatching process. 

The easiest way to keep track of the process is to keep a running tally of all undispatched emails as of the close of the last session of the day. (In Outlook Express, for each folder of undispatched email, select all, go to the main menu, click edit, select "Mark all unread," and it will automatically generate a tally for that folder.)


[[ For reals ]]

(And by the way, when the batching session is done, I close my Outlook Express. I never, ever leave it open. And would I never, ever, use any alarm for new email.)

> UPDATE MARCH 2017 On using a Zassenhaus kitchen timer.


2. DO THE DDO: 

DOWNLOAD, DELETE, ORGANIZE

I used to download email into an undifferentiated inbox at random moments and, oftentimes, even as email was still downloading, start answering willynilly. How about that for an attention-fracking technique! 


Now I begin each email session as I would with a haul of paper mail: first, by taking it all in; second, deleting the junk; and third, organizing the correspondence I want to look at and/or answer into precisely labeled files. 

Files are easy to create and, when emptied of their contents, to delete, or rename or whatever a powerful tool within a tool.  And I cannot overemphasize how effective a simple and flexible filing system has been for helping me focus and more quickly dispatch my email. 

Of course, just like a paper filing system, too many files can be counterproductive. For me, the best filing system is one that holds 15 or fewer emails per file. So if I have a bunch of files with one or two emails, I might consolidate those; if I have, say, 50 emails in one, I might to break that up into, say, two to four more files.

My filing system changes depending on what I'm working on or dealing with in my life. This week, nearing the holidays, it looks like this:

INBOX (this has whatever I'm going to tackle now, preferably never more than 11 emails)
BACKLOG: TEXAS (anything to do with my book in-progress)
BACKLOG: FAMILY
BACKLOG: FRIENDS & COLLEAGUES
BACKLOG: FINANCIAL

(By the way, in case this looks like a "to do" list, it isn't... quite... It's just email. For my "to dos" I use Allen's GTD system with a Filofax along with the brilliant flexibility of usingthanks to Julia Morgenstern for the idea little yellow PostIts for noting next actions.  )

If I can answer an email inside of two minutes, I usually do. (That's a tactic from David Allen's Getting Things Done.)

I might receive some gigazoodlesque number of emails in a typical day, but after doing the DDO, which takes only a couple of minutes at most, I am left with a tidy number of uncategorized emails in the main inbox sometimes as few as two or three. (I try to keep the active uncategorized inbox at 11 messages, tops, because for me a longer list becomes visually overwhelming.)



3. JUI-JITSU-BLOCK TROLLS, KRAY-ZEES & SPAMMERS 

I do not respond to rude or certifiably ultra-weird messages, and as with businesses that spew spam,*  I add those email addresses to my "block sender" list. Happily, there are not many of those, and happily, once I've blocked them, with lightning ease, I never see their emails again!


Out of sight, out of mind. 

*(Phishers tend to use one-time only emails; those I just delete.)

Many of my writer friends agonize over emails (as well as social media comments) from trolls and nuts and spammers. I tell them as I tell you, dear reader, it really is this simple to make them all go away. The challenge is, your ego, prompted by its its arch sense of justice, might jump-up-and-down-insist on responding to them, but your ego, if it's like most people's, including mine, should not be in driver's seat here. Surely you have better things to do with your time and attention than engage with emotionally stunted, social-skill-challenged, and possibly dangerously disturbed individuals. (If you lived in a big city, would you leave your kitchen's back door open to the alleyway 24/7?)


If you relish unnecessary fights and pointless thrills, well, as they say in Mexico, dios los hace y ellos se juntan (God makes them and they get together.) I prefer the Polish saying, Not my circus, not my monkeys.




Viva Moti Nativ!
(Seriously, I took Moti Nativ's Feldenkrais workshop, it was a blast.)



4. PRIORITIZE & TACKLE 

Stopwatch ticking, after having done the DDO, then I prioritize emails (and other related tasks as noted below), and then I tackle them.


There's no magic formula here: I might think about it for a moment or three, then decide what should come first. 

(Once dealt with, I archive each email by year. Some people just delete them; in my repeated experience, however, that is not a good idea.)




5. SWEEP OUT THE SPAM FOLDER ONCE PER DAY

I check the spam folder once per day because that is precisely about how often I find an important email in there. These days floods of spam are coming from phishers (easy to spot for many reasons, also because they vary their email addresses); those I don't touch, I just delete them. 


(I remain perplexed by correspondents who do not check their spam folders. On the other hand, checking too often wastes timesmall amounts, but they add up.)




6. APPLY AND ADJUST "SENDER FILTERS" AS NEEDED


I'm not talking about an app or programming or anything complicated. By "sender filter," a concept I grokked an eon ago but a term I first encountered in Cal Newport's Deep Work, I mean some specific information on one's contact page that, ideally in a kind and generous spirit, encourages potential senders to not send email so that, for the few emails that do squeeze through, I am able to respond quickly, politely, and thoughtfully. 
[[ My contact page as of 2016,
rich with "sender filters" ]]

My contact page, pictured right, includes a long lineup of sender filters: First, a newsletter signup (mainly for those who want to know when I will be teaching a workshop or post a new podcast); then it answers FAQs, such as "where can I find your books?" (I am ever-amazed by that question in this day of amazon and Google, but I do get such emails fairly often); for book club inquiries; the best way to reach me for media and speaking inquiries; answers to writerly questions ("how to find a publisher," etc.); rights inquiries; press kits including high res images; and finally...

... (few indeed seem to have the attentional snorkel gear to arrive there at the bottom).... 

... if someone still wants to email me, he will find my email address.

Like many other writers, back in pioneer days, once I had a live website showing my email address, I found myself receiving so many messages from people seeking my advice about / feedback on / encouragement of their writing, it would have been impossible to answer them all individually. As a solution, many authors have opted for what I think of as "The Wall of Silence"
 no email address at alland/or what seems to me a snotty-sounding third-person notice along the lines of "Wiggy Blip is so famous and busy being fabulously famous, he cannot possibly deign to acknowledge your email." 


(Well, bless you, Wiggy Blip. And Ziggy Stardust, too.)


Cal Newport's various sender filters conclude as follows I quote from his book, Deep Work: "If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting (at) calnewport.com For the reasons stated above, I'll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests."

Of course, some emails, even from perfectly civilized and well-meaning people, do not merit a response they presume too much, they're eye-crossingly vague or, as in a few cases, they clearly neither expect nor invite a response. But as for myself, because my own sender filters work beautifully, my stance is that I will do my darnedest, most reasonable best to answer everyone, whether family, friends, students, literary colleague, or mysterious Albanian, who takes the trouble to write to me a civilized email. 

On occasion a sender blazes past or perhaps never saw the relevant sender filter, so I reply with the link or paste-copy the text of my long-ago posted answer to their question. (For example, I am often asked by students, friends, relatives, neighbors and utter strangers if I will read their manuscript. Here's my answer to that one.)

If you want to comment on this blog, which I sincerely welcome, click here and what you'll get is this sender filter:




This simplest of sender filters, stating that I read but do not usually publish comments, works blazingly well. Trolls and their ilk took a hike, never to return! (As for my fierce-looking writing assistant, I assure you, dear reader, Uliberto Quetzalpugtl only bites cheese.)

P.S. Cal Newport's take on some industrial-strength sender filters. Personally I would not want to use such forbidding sender filters, but for some writers, and some people, that might be the right strategy. In any event, a sender filter beats the daisies out of the Wiggyesque Wall of Silence.


UPDATE: For a good example of strong but both friendly and polite sender filters, here is a screenshot of publishing consultant and blogger Jane Friedman's contact page:







7. FUNNEL IT ALL INTO MOOOOORE EMAIL! 

Over the past year and some I have freed up chunkoids of time and energy for email by deactivating my Facebook account, minimizing Twitter and LinkedIn (including turning off email notifications), and closing this blog and my YouTube channel to published comments. 
In other words, I have reduced the number of channels for people to communicate with me, funneling as many  communications as possible into ye olde email. 

I tell everyone who asks, the best way to find me is by email. 

Yes, I receive more email as a result, but interestingly, many of my "friends" who were so chatty & likey on Facebook rarely if ever trouble to send me email. I have also found that many of the younger generation do not respond to email. Hmmm, also interesting! (Have a nice life, kiddos!)

Well, at least we still have telephones. But sorry, don't count on me to retrieve my voicemail, I am too busy answering email! 


(What about Whatsapp? Ask me again after I've lugged home my taxidermied hippopotamus.)



8. BE QUICK & CLEAR, MY DEAR, BUT ADD DETAIL TO CUT THE CLUTTER


The emails I send myself have a clear subject line and the text clearly calls for or implies expected action or inaction. For example, some of the younger generation in my family prefer to text rather than use email, and getting them to answer an email, such has been my experience, requires laser-like focus in this regard. Hence, subject lines like this:



Re: Super Quick URRRRRgent Question about X
or, say:
Re: Confirming dinner at at 9 PM this Saturday

What do I mean by "add detail to cut the clutter?" Minimize the number of emails needed to arrange things by politely making specific actionable proposals and provide websites, addresses, phone numbers and any other information that your correspondent might need, and hence avoid further emails. For example, instead of blah blah blahing about when and where to maybe kind of sort of meet for coffee, go ahead and make a specific proposal, e.g., "How about if we meet for coffee at 4:30 PM this Tuesday or, if you would prefer, 5:30 next Wednesday at Café Thus-and-Such, 123 Avenue ABC." 


Cal Newport offers more detailed advice about this brain power-saving email tactic on his blog, Study Hacks and his book, Deep Work.




9. WHEN CALLED FOR, FOR HEAVENSSAKES, JUST GO AHEAD AND APOLOGIZE BRIEFLY

Muse.com's Aja Frost offers a batch of handy templates categorized by degree of situational horribleness. 




10. AT THE END OF THE LAST EMAIL SESSION FOR THE DAY, DO THE SCARLET O'HARA




It is a fact that for me, as well as for everyone who uses email, night falls in this Theater of Space-Time... and falls again, and again.... Funny how that happens once every 24 hours... until it doesn't. I guess. 
In the meantime, some emails fall through the cracks of all good intentions. 

Anyway, as Cal Newport writes in Deep Work
"[I]n general, those with a minor public presence, such as authors, overestimate how much people really care about their replies to their messages."
Newport's bluntness may sound cruel. I don't think it is; rather, he points to a cruel fact: that even when surrounded by other people, in fundamental ways we are each of us in this Theater of Space-Time alone. Writing is a technology that permits us to send thoughts from one axis of space-time to multiple others. And this is precisely why I write books and why I read books, and why I welcome correspondence, albeit in electronic form. 
[[ In my dreams... Brad Pitt plays
US ambassador to France John Bigelow
and Salma Hayek, Princess Josefa de Iturbide.
Academy awards all around.
Viva! ]]

And no, I am not worried that one day, should my one of my books be made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, or something, I might need to raise the Wall of Silence, or else bring on a bucket brigade of secretaries to cope with cannon-hoses of incoming emails.


Why am I not worried, pray tell? 


(1) Because my 10 point system works splendidly well. 


(2) Furthermore, should the need arise, it would be a simple matter to add more sender filters / templates, and perhaps, now and then, an autoresponder.
"Smombies" are not the guy in the Chewbacca costume.
Watch the WSJ video here.

(3) Moreover, I need only note the numbers of smombies I see on city streets to conclude that, alas, the world of those of us who still have the cognitive focus to actually read the sorts of literary books I write and to engage in thoughtful correspondence is, and seems destined to remain, a cozy one. 


And if I turn out to be wrong, so what? Then I will get a secretary! 
In the meantime, I shall make do with my writing assistants (although, alas, with emails, those two are all paws). 


> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.