Media Mind, Productivity, Uncategorized

Escaping from Messaging Hell

One Way to Escape from Message Hell

Admit it — it’s really great to get the message you want, when you want it, and in the time and place that you want it. And that vision is usually hard to match.

photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/lexiestevenson/14115352937

Most Messaging is not Like This

And it’s really horrible to get most unwanted messages. It should be simple (and of course it’s not) to find the right balance of messaging across various clients — be they email, iMessage/SMS, or social — so that you get more signal than noise. The reality is that everyone sends you all of their messages all of the time. Unless you filter communication aggressively, split your contact lists into “family”, “friends”, “acquaintances”, and “block that”, you’re going to have a hard time finding the zen of messaging.

photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/132832534@N03/18940552976

The Unrestricted Inbox is No Fun

The irony of messaging as a category is that as it gets more popular it gets more awful (thanks Nir Eyal for this visual of Message Hell). Yet almost every app and remote communication method needs messaging, because messaging solves the problem of communicating 1:1 (or 1:many) when we are all not physically in the same place and need to respond to each other. We all want the (algorithmically-delivered or not) perfect signal of “need to know” and “just in time” messages while also wanting desperately to avoid the inverse: “crying wolf while seemingly urgent and important”, “informational but not urgent”, or just plain spam.

photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/gregmeyer/9223702637

But Blocking Email is Not A Solution

What will we do to keep the best parts of messaging across clients and channels and remake the part we don’t like that causes inefficiency, anger, and frustration?

Clay Shirky, in the well-known talk above (watch it if you’ve never seen it before), talks of “filter failure” and poses that as an antidote to information overload. However, that talk was several years ago. Things have gottne a lot worse with the volume and speed of information since then.

A Modest Proposal

Here’s the problem as I see it — we have information overload and filter failure. Some of this is bacn — “email you want but not right now”, and we have spam (we all know what that looks like). We have communication from different groups: home, family, work, social, and commercial communications. And we have the very real problem of multiple identity disorder, because there is no universal namespace for messaging someone that would create a “phone number” for all communications.

Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/rickharris/430890004

Most people would say, “I’m not sure I like this but this is sort of fine, because the idea of a universal mailing address sounds even worse.” The whole purpose of messaging, they might say, is “to have varying degrees of anonymity and intimacy based on the level of familiarity and trust you have with the individual who’s contacting you.”

The Typical Answer: Don’t Cross The Streams

This “trust” issue is the crux of the problem we face when we want more signal and less noise in our messaging and in our communication in general. We all have internal business rules we use to govern how we respond to different types of messages.

Whether we have enumerated these “rules” or not, they might look like:

  • “Answer the phone call on the second or third ring when my spouse or partner calls”
  • “Text my friend in an hour if I’m busy, or immediately if we are in the process of meeting for coffee or a meal”
  • “Ignore that spammy message from someone or some business I don’t know.”
  • “Never look at LinkedIn connection requests (ok, I kid — but this might be a special category for a segment of the population).”

Get More Quiet, Based on Our Actions

Our messaging apps and messaging platforms in general do a poor job of interpreting our own behavior and in translating that behavior (and future, intended behavior) into human-readable business rules that govern apps and give us more signal than noise.

We don’t live in a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your worldview) future when we have universal messaging or aggregate delivery of messages to a single client or brain box and a system to rules to respond automatically or manually to those messages. But given the overall desire to reduce noise and increase signal in the messaging conversations we do have, I propose the following suggestions:

  1. Turn off notifications on your phone or tablet. This seems like a no-brainer but the struggle to fight “notification creep” is real. It only takes a few app-created nudges to generate a storm of messages you don’t need or want, generated by app developers and not by your own actions.
  2. Unsubscribe from information you don’t need or want. Try Unroll and Sanebox to clean up your email — future you will thank you.
  3. Aggressively filter the information you get. Your mileage may vary depending upon your style, so this might mean uninstalling apps, unfriending certain people, using email filtering rules, or just not looking at your devices so often.
  4. Use text messages and iMessages to maintain ongoing, single-threaded conversations to the people who matter to you. What’s better than email? Having only one conversation to respond to, stacked in chronological order. If that person is on your list (let’s say … in your top 25 people), they should either leave that list by falling below a threshold or you will have a clear signal that you need to reach out to them because they’re not at the top of your list.
  5. Think about simple rules and habits that make your life better. When you encounter product managers and other people who work on products and services, be sure to tell them what’s working and what’s not working in the products you use. (Hint: they would like to know what regular people feel.)

What could product managers and developers do to help with the message problem? A great start would be more levers and dials to adjust how we receive messaging. Don’t worry — I’m not suggesting that we create Advanced Settings Panels everywhere — but rather that the products themselves observe and respond to a series of behaviors derived from passive activity and active activity. Passive in this case might mean the messages I don’t respond to, and active could mean the messages I do respond to or arrange into folders or lists. The goal should be to develop a personalized set of rules that will automatically deliver message Air Traffic Control to the average user, not the power user.

What about Ads?

Building a personalized set of messaging rules will make easier to present promoted content in a clear and consistent manner, penalize spam, and highlight the important messages I’d like form the people that matter most. It could be an elusive goal, but I believe that improving messaging incrementally has amazing potential to increase happiness and productivity.The popularity of messaging need not cause its antithesis by creating messages we hate. We should be building new and clearer ways to ensure the right information gets to the right people at the right time, on the right communication channel.

(this post also appeared on Medium)

Life Hacks, Productivity

To Get More Done, Automate the Stuff You Hate

Inbox Art

Like you, I spend a lot of time doing the same things over and over again. In physical space this is easier to think about: when you have clutter in your home, if you attack each area systematically you’ll eventually get to a clean room. It’s impossible to ignore a stack of things in your way that cover every surface. In contrast, it’s really easy to ignore a stack of digital things when you’re not looking at your computer screen. So what should you do when you have a lot of unwanted emails that keep showing up in your inbox?

I’ve tried a lot of solutions to this problem, and read some great suggestions about getting your inbox down to reasonable level. Getting your inbox down to true zero might be overkill, and there are some great easy tips to make that task faster and more manageable. But the thing that helps me the most is SaneBox – it’s a simple subscription service that makes my life easier. Sanebox connects to my email accounts and automatically files the emails I might not need to read immediately into SaneBulk and SaneNews folders. It also catches my important emails – those from people I talk to frequently – and puts those emails into the SaneTop folder. Sanebox makes the daily email scan easier because I’m reading (or deleting) emails of the same type.

My favorite Sanebox feature is SaneBlackhole, because it magically makes unwanted email disappear. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters and blogs, and sometimes my name makes it onto an email list and I’m not sure how it got there. Instead of having to figure out how to unsubscribe, I just drag the email into SaneBlackhole and Sanebox makes sure I don’t see more emails from that sender. The best thing about Sanebox is that it doesn’t care what email program I use – it just works. So if your inbox is making you crazy, I’d recommend checking out Sanebox (yes, I’m a subscriber).

Customer Development, Productivity

Tiny Habits Build into Great Behaviors

I signed up this week for the TinyHabits program from BJ Fogg at Stanford. The program – a way of training yourself to take small steps that will build into specific behaviors – intrigues me because it mirrors a few practices I’ve done over the past two years that have made a huge difference in my life. Keeping a daily and weekly log, trying to answer all of my email promptly, and always asking people how I can help them are three small habits I’ve followed that have delivered big benefits.

What did I do? (Keeping a daily log)

I can’t take too much credit for this one – it’s T.A. McCann who introduced me to it – but simply keeping a list of the major things that you do each day and who you did it for can give you great insight into how you’re spending your time. I don’t get much value from logging every tiny thing that I do – but I try to capture any activity that takes more than 30 minutes of time. Keeping this log (in Evernote) gives me access to what I’m doing today, what I did last week, and keeps that list with me wherever I go. It’s also a great place to plan – just ask yourself 3 things: “what did I do?”, “what am I doing next?”, and  “where do I need help?”

How can I answer all of my email as fastly and efficiently as I can?

There are plenty of ways to manage email and to be productive, and I don’t claim to have reinvented the wheel on dealing with email. The key thing is to spend less time finding the emails that need action, and then to act on them with deliberate speed. I use a modified GTD approach to manage my email load, identifying each piece of mail to file, forget/delete, or to act upon it immediately. And if there is a quick item that I can send as the action and it will take less than a minute or two, I do it now. Added to this is a quick sweep in the morning and evening of any emails that are lingering in my inbox (yes, I know this is ferboten for some, but I use my inbox (and Gmail’s priority inbox) to let me know how I’m doing.) I never make it inbox zero, but on most good days I’ve maintained the email equilibrium and don’t have more than I had at the beginning of the day. Also, consider using the excellent email filtering tool Sanebox to make it easier to go through all of the bacn that would otherwise clog your inbox.

How can I help you?

This habit has produced the most divergent and interesting answers and opportunities. Simply asking “how can I help you” yields nothing … and everything. It’s really cool to just ask people a question and to see how they respond – it opens up opportunities to really help people. So just make a habit of the question that works for you, ask it to the people in your life, and see how it changes things. Good luck!