Military precision in emails

Changing email and call habits for sanity

I get 185 notifications a day from email, on average. Some days that number is closer to 225. I know this from my iOS Screen Time reports. I also know Wednesday between 9 am and noon is apparently open season on my inbox.

One hundred and eighty five.

That doesn’t count the barrage of text messages, phone calls, and other junk dinging at me. Your inbox is probably equally endless.

This is madness, and I’m probably not making your life better at this, either. That needs to change.

Last week I spent many hours working on a series of important documents used by kids and families in traumatic crisis. I spent another several hours working on an online learning system that is critical to another business and is for training hospital staff. And still more time was spent writing new text for important pages to a website for another business looking to us to help them gain new members so they can, you know, survive. To say nothing of the morning I spent coming up with ideas for sales-increasing campaigns for people.

Airlines don’t allow flight crews to disturb pilots during takeoff and landing. Because takeoff and landing is the most dangerous part of their job. Hospitals increasingly identify nurses with a special vest as they’re dispensing medication on rounds. The vest means “don’t disturb me”. For nurses, the most life-critical mistakes happen when dispensing medication, and the most mistakes happen when doctors and staff talk to them about whatever.

I’m not exactly flying a plane here or administering chemotherapy, but the work I do for people is often critical to their livelihoods and customers in some way. In some cases, it’s not far from being critical to preserving lives.

It’s unfair to you and them for me to be poked at so darn much. To say nothing of the fact people do their best work when they’re hyper-focused on a single task.

I work about 10 hours a day, not counting another 4-6 hours of “walking around” time with my phone in my pocket and at my desk at home. Weekends aren’t much better. Even at 16 hours a day, that’s an email notification every five minutes. To be clear: I don’t have a huge influx of spam. These are messages that are awaiting action.

So I’m making some changes to my email and call habits.

Changes to phone habits

  • I’ve always been purposefully terrible at answering calls. A shocking number of calls happen because someone “just wants to talk” and “has something to send to me” — which consumes time and isn’t cost effective. Most of that time the call devolves to someone saying they’re going to send me an email, which is all that ever needed to happen anyway.
  • The other reason is I get about 4-5 calls a day from foreign development companies asking me to outsource all our work to India.
  • I’ve now enabled new settings to send numbers not in my Contact list to voicemail immediately.

A phone call buzzing away is not much different than someone barging into a room unannounced. It’s, “Hey, stop whatever you’re doing with this person and handle me instead.” Short of an emergency, we don’t do this with any other profession. Even haircuts have appointments. Except for GreatClips, where you may still have to wait. Regardless, I am not interested in being like GreatClips.

Changes to email habits

  • I’m disabling “push” notifications for email and setting my mail app to “fetch” new mail when I push the “check for new mail” button. Subsequently this means I’m going to sit down to look at email at specific intervals during the day. Sort of like office hours and how I’ve long treated phone calls.
  • (This will hopefully remove that existential dread from each morning. The first thing I see is a big red badge of about 20-30 messages. I see that badge before I’ve even petted my dog.)
  • I’m going to try to send fewer and shorter emails. Specifically, if I get an email from you: expect that I will see it, it will be prioritized accordingly, and we will try to get it fixed or resolved in one swoop. Too often I get a message in the morning, acknowledge it, and then get it resolved an hour later, acknowledge that, and then get a confirmation back. That’s four emails minimum. I could have just said, “Hey, got it done, here you go,” and we could all move on.
  • I’m not going to send you emails on the weekend unless it’s necessary. As I’ve noticed from this weekend, we’re all fighting each other in an email Cold War. You want your inbox clean, I want mine clean, and we’re all just fighting against each other with the same unwritten goal. I may do some work or draft a message, but I won’t send it until Monday morning.

Do not read this and assume I am targeting you. None of us are built to work this way. I just want to be better at the real work. Not the meta-work that is email.

In a way, I am blessed that so many people have entrusted me (and Alex) with all their ideas and problems. There was a time in life I had quite the opposite problem. But I’m not 19 anymore and I can’t live like this forever.

And for what it’s worth: critical web server alerts get sent to a separate channel to me, Alex, and our hosting manager Joe. It’s kinda like the bat signal, but way less exciting and only to three people.

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