I don’t know about you, but this pandemic has led to my inbox being full of messages from companies telling me about the steps they’re taking to ensure business continuity. It’s like the GDPR never happened. 🙄
However, let’s just examine how these companies are conveying this mission-critical information? Is it some sexy new platform? Have they taken out adverts? Nope, they’re using email.
Email is the original robust, decentralised technology. It’s built on open standards. It’s free. You can do almost anything with it,. This is why, despite Silicon Valley trying to come up with alternatives, email refuses to ‘die’. It’s just too useful.
People used to complain about email and the flood of messages in their inbox. But that’s nothing compared to the hundreds (or even thousands!) of messages you can be bombarded with if your organisation uses a workplace chat app. You don’t solve a problem just by throwing new shiny tech at it.
I remember Malcolm Gladwell mentioning years ago in The New Yorker that if paper had been invented recently, we’d be talking about its “tangible” qualities and how “spatially flexible” it is. Same goes with email: we forget how awesome it is because it’s seen as boring and everyday.
But let’s just go through some of the things you can achieve with email:
I see that the #DisasterSocialism hashtag has been trending on social networks, which is certainly something we need instead of #DisasterCapitalism. If you and your organisation is disrupted by the pandemic, just get through the initial days with whatever you’ve got. And I can guarantee you’ve already got email.
Further reading? There’s a list of decentralised applications (mostly newer tech) here.
This morning, Robin Dewar, a freshly-minted supporter of my Thought Shrapnel newsletter, got in touch to ask me some advice. What article(s) should he point his team towards to help them improve their use of email?
I realised that there wasn’t one blog post to rule them all, so instead I took the opportunity to go back through relevant articles I’d saved to Pocket. I removed any that were vendor-specific (e.g. Google, Microsoft) and ones that included tips as part of a wider ‘make your life more productive’ article.
The result, which I’ll continue to add to, can be found on my wiki, divided into the following sections:
In praise of email
Dealing with colleagues and bosses
Dealing with difficult emails
All told, there’s almost 50 articles in there. I’ve chosen my top 10 tips to feature in this post:
1. Turn off notifications
It is absolutely ridiculous that we allow Outlook to check email every 5 minutes, allow our phone to get push messages, or keep a Gmail tab open all the time. This is absolutely killing us in terms of productivity. In 90% of all cases we don’t need to know immediately that there is a new message. Segmenting our email checking time into 2, 4, or 8 times a day has massive benefits. We greatly reduce task-switching penalties, and removing the alerts so we’re not tempted goes a huge way. (Joshua Lyman)
2. Prepare, but don’t send emails on Sunday evening
Sunday is definitely a day for relaxing, but if you’re often overwhelmed come Monday morning, logging in briefly Sunday evening may help you alleviate some of that Monday mania. You don’t need to make calls or even answer emails—simply assess what your Monday game plan will be, and you’ll sleep a little more soundly. (Inc. via Lifehacker)
3. Be concise
Write shorter emails. What is the 1 main thing you want to communicate? Say it concisely. The shorter your emails, the shorter their response tends to be. It saves everyone time. (George Kao)
4. Tell your boss what you’re going to do, and then what you’ve done
I’m convinced 95% of cubicle workers who work over 60 hours a week constantly can cut it down to 40-45 hours by sending 2 emails a week to their boss:
Email #1: What you plan on getting done this week
Email #2: What you actually got done this week
That’s it. These 2 emails will prevent you from working 60 hours a week, while improving your relationship with your boss and getting the best work you’ve ever done. (Robbie Abed)
5. Communicate facts by email and emotion face-to-face
…if you’ve got great news that will get everyone stoked up, it will be more effective and create more positive energy if you deliver it in person. A group meeting to announce a big sales win, for example, is like an instant celebration. By contrast, an email announcing the same win seems a bit like an afterthought. Similarly, if you’ve got bad news or criticism, it will be better received, and more likely to be helpful, if it’s delivered in person. If you use email, it will seem like you don’t care or that you’re cowardly. (Lifehacker)
6. Have multiple channels to message people
Perhaps unsurprisingly, CEOs often point to Slack for helping them cut back on superfluous email back-and-forth so they can give priority to the fewer internal emails to do trade with their teams. Some execs recommend other tools for diverting conversations away from their inboxes, from video-conferencing system Zoom to project-management platforms like Wrike and Trello. (Fast Company)
7. Be positive
Be positive & friendly. Emails can quickly build, or erode, relationships. I always try to come across as encouraging and kind, and start or end my emails with something appreciative about the recipient or the situation. For example, “I appreciate your thoughtful message here.” or “Hoping the rest of your week goes well!” Think of the primary purpose of emails you write to be relational (improving trust and camaraderie in relationships) and secondarily transactional (asking/answering questions, proposing ideas, etc.) (George Kao)
8. Treat emails as if they’re postcards
We live in a time when hackers hack for no good reason whatsoever. We also interact with other humans, who may accidentally stumble on an email left open or snoop because they suck at respecting privacy. Whatever the case may be, when you write something you commit it to a nearly permanent record—at least, once you hit send. If you don’t want other people to know your inner-most thoughts, think twice before sending them to someone. You never know where they may end up. (Awkward Human)
9. Avoid techno-productivism
By focusing relentlessly on making specific tasks or operations easier and faster, instead of stepping back and trying to understand how to make an organization as a whole maximally effective, we’ve ended with a knowledge work culture in which people spend the vast majority of their time trying to keep up with the very inboxes, devices and channels that were conceived for the exact opposite purpose — to liberate more time for more valuable efforts. (Cal Newport)
10. Sign off with ‘thanks in advance’
Among closings seen at least 1,000 times in our study, “thanks in advance” ended up correlating with the highest response rate, which makes sense, as the email’s recipient is being thanked specifically for a response which has yet to be written. There’s a bit of posturing involved with this closing, but it turns out it works pretty well. But no matter how you express your thanks, doing so certainly appears to be your best bet in closing an email if you want a response. (Boomerang blog)
If you’re into upping your game around email-based productivity, you’re going to love my new audiobook. Thanks in advance for investing in it… 😉
Update (January 2015): Although the self-hosted approach detailed in this post worked really well for the six months I tried it, I’m now using Fastmail.
On Friday, I decided to ditch Gmail. It had been a long time coming, to be honest.
I’m not really interested in having a debate whether or not I ‘should’ do this, or whether it’s objectively a good thing to do. I just had an epiphany when I realised that almost all of my data (e.g. search, email, analytics) was going via Google’s servers. It’s like some kind of legitimised man-in-the-middle attack.
Instead of Gmail, I’m using webmail on my own domain and (shared) server. It was a pretty straightforward process. Here’s how to do it:
Set up self-hosted email inbox
Forward (and archive) email
Import folders and email
Update email addresses around the web
1. Set up self-hosted email inbox
I’m using Reclaim Hosting, which comes with something called ‘CPanel’ installed. This makes it much easier to install and maintain apps and services.
Sign up for a web host that has CPanel. Login, and go to the ‘Mail’ section of CPanel:
Click on the ‘Email Accounts’ option. Fill in the email address and password – for example, I chose firstname.lastname@example.org
You can now access your new email inbox by appending ‘webmail’ to your domain name – e.g. dougbelshaw.com/webmail. You have a choice of interfaces to access your email inbox. I chose Roundcube:
2. Forward (and archive) email
The first thing you want to do is make sure that you continue to get the email sent to you in one place. To do that, you need to forward all of the email that comes to your Gmail account to your new self-hosted email inbox.
In Gmail, click on the gear icon and go to ‘Settings’. Once there click on ‘Forwarding and POP/IMAP’:
Choose ‘Forward a copy of incoming mail to…’ and input the self-hosted email you set up in Step 1. You’ll have to confirm that account by clicking on a link that Google send to your new email address.
I chose to ‘archive Gmail’s copy’. It’s up to you what option you choose here.
3. Import folders and email
This is the bit that takes the longest. In fact, you can leave this running overnight and/or be doing Step 4 while this is happening.
Unless you’re declaring email bankruptcy, you’ll need to transfer your existing emails and folders from Gmail to your new self-hosted email account. Step 2 only redirects all new emails received.
First, you’ll need to use an email client like Mozilla Thunderbird (cross-platform) to download all of your Gmail folders and emails. To set it up, download Thunderbird and then launch it.
You’ll see something like this:
You’ve already got an email address, so click ‘Skip this and use my existing email’.
Add your Gmail account first by entering your name, email address and password. Remember, if you’ve got two-factor authentication turned on for your Google account, you’ll need an ‘App password’ from your security page.
The default option is to connect via ‘IMAP’ which is what we want so leave it as it is and press ‘Done’. You should then see Thunderbird importing all of your folders and emails. This will take a long time.
Note: ‘folders’ in Gmail are known as ‘labels’.
Now you need to add the self-hosted email account you set up in Step 1. To do this go to the menu and choose ‘New’ and then ‘Existing Mail Account’:
You’ll see the same box from when you added your GMail account. This time add your email address and password to the account you set up in Step 1.*
Click ‘Done’ and you now have both your Gmail and self-hosted email account syncing with Thunderbird.
Now you need to select all of your Gmail folders/labels and drag them to your self-hosted account.
Be careful to drag them onto the email address rather than ‘Inbox’ – otherwise the folders you drag will become sub-folders of your inbox rather than folders in their own right. Of course, you can always just drag them to ‘Archive’ if you don’t care.
Now wait. Possibly a very long time if you’re on a slow connection and/or you have lots and lots of emails and folders.
4. Update email addresses around the web
While your email and folders are transferring – and, to be honest, over the next few days/weeks – you’ll need to update your email address with the accounts you have around the web. There’s no great hurry for this, as your Gmail messages will be redirected to your new email inbox, but it’s nice to get things sorted.
You may also want to do one or more of the following:
send a ‘please update your addressbook!’ email to your contacts
use an email auto-responder on your Gmail account for a while
add a message about having a new address to your email signature
EDIT: Remember, if you don’t tell people about your new email address, your emails will still be going via Google’s servers (thus negating the point of the exercise…)
Did you manage to follow these instructions? Have you got a different/better way of doing it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below (or via this Hacker News thread)!
*Apart from believing in Open Source software (and working for Mozilla), one of my reasons for using Thunderbird is that it provides auto-setup for a much wider range of services than other mail apps. Also, the reason you see ‘SSL’ here is because I set up https on my domain using StartSSL. That’s outside the scope of this tutorial, but is also probably unnecessary if you’re planning to access your inbox via the webmail interface.
This was actually more for my benefit than for anyone else’s. It gave me a way to internalise that I don’t need to fret about emails at all hours of the day. Working for a geographically-distributed organisation like Mozilla can have huge performative issues if you’re not disciplined with your time.
So what did I learn?
People will seek you out if they need you urgently. But that only happened a couple of times and it was resolved quickly via Skype chat.
Colleagues respect work/life balance more than I tend to assume. If it’s 9pm in the UK then they don’t tend to expect an immediate answer.
Some issues resolve themselves if you don’t answer straight away.
Email is a chore to many people. Quite a few people expressed solidarity.
It’s certainly been eye-opening to me. I’ve taken my auto-responder off now (I don’t want to abuse it) but I’ll be employing it again during my impending Belshaw Black Ops.
I’m composing this sitting cross-legged with my back to the wall in a hotel room in Porto. There’s an occasional gentle breeze that drifts through the open window that slightly chills the back of my neck. I expected Portugal to be warmer for some reason.
The cacophony of seagulls behind outside fades into the background as the sound of church bells fills the air. An earlier glance out of the window showed people getting ready for the day. They take for granted the magnificent, tall buildings with tiled facades; it’s no wonder the centre of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m going to spend the entire month of December being a lot more analogue. I’m really looking forward to spending that time increasing my mindfulness. I’ll still be performing my normal work functions for Mozilla, but will tend towards paper to get things done. Meanwhile, I’ll not be using technology for personal communications.
I’m not looking at or responding to personal emails
I won’t be active on social networks like Twitter or Google+
No new blog posts or weekly newsletters in December
I intend to spend time with my family and read books that have been recommended to me. This digital hiatus is something I’ve done for the past couple of years and would highly recommend to anyone. At a time when I’m feeling slightly weary and cynical about the world it’s a period of rejuvenation that allows me to start the New Year with a bang.
For the past couple of years I’ve undertaken Belshaw Black Ops. It’s the name Paul Lewis gave to my personal digital hiatus lasting for the month of December. I live in such a fast-paced online world for the other eleven months of the year that I need some time to take it all in!
You can read about what I got up to last year here.
This post is a heads-up to say that during December I won’t be:
I’d hoped not to be travelling either, but my job at the Mozilla Foundation evangelising Open Badges necessitates me going to a few places. Unless you’re also in those locations, the only way of getting hold of me is via my work email. Ask me for it ASAP if you need it!
Just to confirm that I’ll still be around on Twitter and Google+ for the next couple of weeks as well as blogging and writing my newsletter. But after then, leave me alone for a bit, OK?
As I explained a month ago, reminded everyone a couple of weeks ago, and have had in my email signature for the past week, my ‘Black Ops’ period has started. I’ll be back full of energy and bursting at the seams to write on January 1st, 2012.
What does this mean?
No personal email.
No social networking.
I’ll still be at work (although next year I’m really going to push to be off for the entirety of December)
You’ll be be able to catch me via Skype (doug_belshaw)
However, I’m uninstalling Twitter, Facebook and Google+ from my iPhone and TweetDeck from my various machines. I’m putting on my email autoresponder and deleting everything that comes in during December.
Need something to read?
These have been my most popular posts of 2011 (in descending order):
As I’ve already mentioned, in a couple of weeks’ time I’m going to be disconnecting from networks for a calendar month. I’ll still be at work, but won’t be tweeting or replying to personal email at all.
Many thanks to those people who have been in touch asking if that means for them as well. The answer? Yep, absolutely.
So if you’ve got something you need me to do or respond to, please let me know sooner rather than later! Come December 1st you’ll have to either phone me or stop by my house.
This year I’m planning to do the same for the month of December. It’s slightly difficult given my role at JISC infoNet, but here’s what I’ll be doing (and not doing):
Spending time with family.
Not responding to email. If you email my personal email address you’ll get an auto-response. Other than work-related emails on my JISC accounts, the only other way to contact me is my mobile number. Ask for it if you need it.
Avoiding social networks. Yes, even Twitter. And Google+, Facebook. The lot.
Not blogging. Or moderating comments.
Collating and curating. Change doesn’t come through one person having a good idea. Change comes through ideas being packaged in such a way that they become memes and alter the status quo. I’ll be going back through what I’ve written and created over the past year and thinking through how it connects with other stuff.
Playing Battlefield 3. What an epic game!
Migrating web hosts. I’m sick to death of Bluehost. They used to be great, but now they’re slow and unreliable.
Depending on when I have to defend my thesis, I may also need to spend time making clarifications and changes to that. All in all, if you need to contact me, ask my advice, or invite me to speak somewhere, you’ve got four weeks before 2012 to do so… 🙂
Three years ago, at the end of 2007, I took a hiatus. Inspired by Stephen Downes, I realised needed a break from the stream. It’s time I took another one, but for different reasons. This time I’m taking a cue from danah boyd who explains her position well:
Years ago, I realized that there was no way to take a vacation and manage the always-on, always-in-contact lifestyle that technology affords. Initially, I thought that it’d be possible to simply ignore email while on vacation and deal with it afterwards but I realized that this was untenable. It takes months to catch up on thousands of emails and I’d come back and immediately burn out again trying to catch up.
She goes on to add that “disappearing without properly making certain that everyone has what they need is irresponsible and disrespectful.” That’s why I’m giving advanced notice that I’m going on a personal digital hiatus from Friday 17th December 2010 until Monday 10th January 2011.
In practice this means that during this period:
I won’t reply to any email (and any email I do receive will be deleted).
I’m uncontactable via Twitter.
I won’t be blogging or moderating comments.
If you need to get hold of me, there’s two options: phone me (if you haven’t got my numbers already, you don’t need them) or contact me at work (until 21st December / after 4th January)
I’ll keep on clipping the occasional article I come across, but I’m intending to swear off Twitter, email and blogging for three weeks, during which time my wife will almost certainly give birth to our daughter. If that isn’t reason enough, I’ll also be doing the following:
Getting back into shape. The snow has knocked my exercise regime for six.