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Get Shorty

January 19, 2011

The too-long e-mail generally induces the following behavior in recipients:

  • A sigh
  • Closing the e-mail and marking it as “unread”
  • Getting around to it later
  • Skimming
  • Reading partway through and saying “yeah, yeah, I get it”

Nobody wants to write the too-long e-mail but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Some things simply take a lot of prose to explain. Fortunately, there are some tricks to make a too-long e-mail less burdensome to the recipient.

1. Write an outline.
Despite her speech impediment and the faint smell of mothballs, your 9th grade English teacher was right. If you don’t know exactly what you want to say, you will dither around and waste words.

2. Write short paragraphs, even if it takes a lot of them.
Look at a newspaper. Long stories get broken up into lots of short, few-sentence paragraphs. Those little pauses make the page (or the message window) look less intimidating to the reader.

3. Use bullets and numbered lists.
Sites like eHow and Instructables break complicated explanations down into a few discrete steps. This kind of slicing and dicing makes for easier skimming.

4. Employ the sub-head.
Magazines and newspapers use short (often bold) lines of type to introduce sections of a longer article. You should to. In addition to breaking up a long grey page, they let readers know what’s coming so they can adjust their attention level.

5. Get abstract.
Every academic paper starts with an abstract, a few-sentence overview of what the paper will be about. Business and government reports use something similar: the executive summary. Whatever you call it, it’s a great way to let the reader evaluate the importance of the e-mail. If they can understand at a glance what it’s about, they may just choose to give the rest of the e-mail the time it deserves to be digested thoroughly.

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Positive Procrastination: The Later Box

January 18, 2011

There’s a famous line in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about families: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. If Leo were writing on a PC in 2011, he might have said the same about e-mail. I can think of at least 50 kinds of unpleasant e-mails, everything from forty flavors of spam to the unsettling “I’d like to see you in my office.”

One kind of unpleasant e-mail is a particular drain on workplace happiness and productivity. It’s the one that requires a very carefully worded reply. These e-mails happen all the time. Sometimes it’s a complaint from a disgruntled customer. Sometimes it’s a co-worker trying to pull you into a meeting you’d rather not attend. In themselves, the e-mails aren’t so bad. The problem is the dread associated with the reply, a dread so insidious that it can sap time and energy from your day.

The trick, like so many workplace solutions, is avoidance. Just avoid dealing with the e-mail. Not forever, but long enough to get on with the rest of your day. Try this avoidance system: the Later Box.

Create a folder (or a Topic tag in Postbox) specifically for those e-mails requiring careful replies. When you read an e-mail that makes that little voice in your head say “man, I don’t want to deal with this,” stick it in the folder and get on with your day. You’ll need a block of time to revisit your Later Box when you have the stomach crank through your replies.

When and how you “process” these depends on your temperament. Some people can dispatch them first thing in the morning and begin the day with the satisfaction of knowing they’ve already tackled the toughest task of the day. For others, commute time on a train, bus or ferry is the perfect no-man’s land to spend half-an-hour in reply mode. But any way you do it, getting these e-mails out of your head for a few hours is one of the few productive kinds of procrastination.

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Be The Abbreviator

January 14, 2011

Nobody likes meetings. But nobody seems to know how to make them go away. We don’t have the answer either but we do have are a few tips to help shorten your next business epic.

1. Arm Yourself with the Agenda
Most meetings have agendas. But few of them get used properly. The agenda isn’t just a list of what to talk about, it’s a meter for measuring the progress of the meeting and a lever to move it along when it’s bogged down. Be the “agenda guy,” reminding people that you need to get to the next item before you all run out of time. It’s a great excuse to suggest that unresolved issues get tabled, worked on offline or postponed to the next inevitable meeting.

2. The Secret Ballot
Everybody knows that meetings without goals are a waste of time. A few of us even take the time to spell out those goals at the start of a meeting. What almost nobody does, however is to look at whether those goals were met at the end of the meeting. One way to implement this meeting post-mortem is to use a grading system. After each meeting, attendees slip a letter grade into a shoebox by the conference room door. Each grade should reflect one attendee’s opinion of how close the meeting came to meeting its goals. Consistently bad grades may be the lever you need to shake up how (and how often) meetings are run. You can even try to connect meeting grades to the bottom line with a Meeting ROI.

3. Threaten Longer Meetings
One reason meetings don’t work is that attendees don’t come prepared. They haven’t read the pre-meeting packet or taken the time for some other bit of homework intended to make the meeting go faster. One way around this is to offer attendees the option of even longer meetings. When planning a meeting, give attendees the choice of doing their pre-meeting homework in the first half-hour of the meeting. Most will get the idea.

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Productivity Pills? Possibly.

January 11, 2011

It’s hard enough to concentrate at the office without our own bodies working against us. But that’s exactly what happens to most office workers in the early afternoon. Endocrinologists call it the postprandial dip and it stems from a drop in blood glucose as your body concentrates more on digesting lunch than on helping you concentrate.

Until the beginning of the last decade, your only (legal) option for a workday energy boost was a cup of coffee and a glazed donut. Then came the tidal wave of energy drinks. From Rockstar to 5-Hour Energy, there are now dozens of drinks. Despite claims of the benefits of amino acids and B vitamins, most nutritionists attribute any energy boost to their high levels of sugar and caffeine.

A less sugar-laden way to boost concentration may be available in herbal supplements. Leading the list are ginseng and gingko biloba. The first is credited by advocates with curing everything from impotence to diabetes. Despite the hype though, there is some evidence that it can improve abstract thinking and mental reaction times. Ginseng, taken in combination with gingko biloba, it might even be a memory booster, according to the National Institute of Health’s MedLine Plus database.

So far, most of the research into ginkgo biloba has been to gauge its effectiveness as a defense against Alzheimer’s and dementia. While less research has been done on how good it is at improving concentration in healthy adults, there may be something to it. One British study showed improved cognitive reaction times peaking about 2.5 hours after taking just one dose of the extract. Not exactly a quick fix but potentially healthier than a caffeine and sugar bomb. Or you may be better of with a clandestine afternoon nap.

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No Sympathy For The Devil

January 10, 2011

When was the last time you offered an idea at a workplace meeting that didn’t raise some sort of objection or qualification from a co-worker? From “that won’t work” to “let me play devil’s advocate here,” there are a million roadblocks to getting a group to go along with your good idea. Sometimes the criticisms are valid. (After all, not all your ideas are good). But more often than not, someone is objecting to your point just to raise their profile in the group.

While there’s no silver bullet to outsmarting the devil’s advocate, there are a few techniques for sidestepping objections and engaging the rest of the group with your idea. Tom Kelly, one of the founders of the product design firm IDEO, offers a number of strategies in his book “The Ten Faces of Innovation.” Here are a few of his his role-centric ways of disarming your attacker:

  • Be the Cross-Pollinator - find an analogy from outside your company, your market and your world. New ideas always sound fishy. If you can show that what’s new in your world is a proven strategy in other environments, you can paint your opponent as unwilling to think outside the box.
  • Be the Experimenter - concede that you don’t know for sure your idea will work but that the path to the best solution seldom comes without trial and error. If you can explain why a negative outcome is manageable, you can focus on the rewards that come from planned trial and error.
  • Be the Caregiver - few people want to admit that they’re advocating against their customers’ best interests. If your explanation as to why your idea is good for your company isn’t getting traction, flip it. Explain why your idea’s good for the company AND good for your customers. You’ve just doubled the upside.

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Don’t Bother Me. I’m Working.

January 7, 2011

Yesterday, we covered ways to stay focused by using Account Groups to separate work messages from personal messages. The trouble is, it’s often work-related e-mail that gets in the way of work. Most of us juggle multiple projects on any given day. And it’s often the distractions of one project that prevent you from making progress on another.

Postbox’s Focus Pane is designed to let you focus on one project or topic at a time. The Focus Pane let’s you view just those messages in your inbox that you’ve assigned to a particular topic. The topic tagging is easier than it sounds: Postbox lets you tag messages with topics of your choice and then automatically labels any later messages in that thread with the same topic.

Let’s say you’re working on Project A. With the Focus Pane tuned to Project A, you’ll see only Project A-related messages in your inbox. If a colleague you’re working with on Project B sends you an e-mail, it won’t appear in your inbox until you switch off the Focus Pane.

Used together, Account Groups and the Focus Pane really let you concentrate on one thing at a time. Learn more about the Focus Pane here.

Posted by Postbox

Keep ‘Em Separated with Account Groups

January 6, 2011

Smart? Driven? In the prime of life? Multi-tasking should be no problem, right? Maybe not. It’s increasingly looking like no one is particularly good at bouncing back and forth between tasks.

In the 2010 Frontline documentary “Digital Nation,” a Stanford University professor describes the effects of constant multitasking on his students’ work: good paragraphs, lousy papers. “What we’re seeing is less of a notion of a big idea carried through and much more little bursts and snippets,” he said.

Nothing poses a bigger threat to workday concentration than e-mail. Just when you’re getting up to speed on one message, another pops into your inbox, pulling you away and breaking your concentration. Ignoring incoming e-mail is easier said than done. But it’s not impossible, especially if you have the right tools.

Postbox includes a number of features designed to let users focus on one task at a time. We start with a very smart inbox.

We found that while users love a unified inbox (where mail from different accounts flows into a single inbox), mixing work-related and personal messages in the same box often creates an irresistible distraction. Postbox gives you the option of customizing your unified inbox into Account Groups.

With Account Groups, you can organize your accounts into groups to create custom unified views. For example, you can create groups for personal accounts and work accounts and then unify your message views by those account groups. That lets you focus on work (or play) without unrelated messages appearing. Learn more about Account Groups.

If your life’s really complicated, you can break your inbox down even further, either with additional Account Groups or with another filter function: the Focus Pane. More on that one tomorrow.

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What, Me Hurry?

January 5, 2011

First there was Slow Food, a worldwide movement against wolfing down mass-produced food. Then there was Slow Travel, an effort to get tourists to interact more deeply with the places they visit. From there, the trend has spawned everything from Slow Sex to Slow Art, Slow Gardening, and Slow Software Design.

Recently, the trend has started to creep into the business world with consultants, agencies and bloggers promoting Slow Marketing, Slow Branding and Slow Work.

What the slow movements have in common is a distaste for the ever-increasing pace of modern life and a healthy suspicion for products quickly conceived and poorly created. If you think you’re working faster and getting less done, it might be worth a look at the International Institute of Not Doing Much website. Tips include: “yawn often” and “spend more time in the bathtub.”

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Logo or No-Go: Images in E-Mail Signatures

December 31, 2010

Like Coke vs. Pepsi or Lady Gaga’s outfits, e-mail signatures are a matter of taste. Unfortunately, it’s not just your taste that matters. Your e-mail recipients are the ultimate judge. A new year is a good excuse to take a good hard look at your signature and what it says about you. After all, it’s the final word in every e-mail you send.

There’s too much that can go wrong in a signature to cover in a short post. So we’ll stick to a single topic: signature images. E-mail purists and design-nerds think they’re hokey. Those who use them think they’re great.

Regardless of where you come down on the image issue, remember one thing - it shouldn’t replace text. If your contact information appears only in an image, it won’t display by default in most mail clients. Even if it does, the reader won’t be able to copy the text out, which is a least part of the reason you’ve got a signature in there in the first place.

If you think an image is appropriate, that it gives your readers a better sense of who you are and how you do business, we recommend keeping it small and simple. The more elaborate your image, the more likely it will get noticed. And that may not be a good thing.

A poorly designed signature image, like a lame logo or clunky website says something about your business. If you’re not 100% sure you’re sending the right message, stick to text. And keep the ASCII art portraits to a minimum.

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Short Cut to the Spam Folder

December 30, 2010

Pressed for time? Typing with your thumbs? Abbreviations, from leetspeak strings to corporate acronyms shorten text and save time, at least for the writer. But beyond confusing readers, a misplaced abbreviation may trigger something unexpected, like a spam filter.

Back in 2006, users of the spam filter Spam Assassin from the English county of Oxfordshire began noticing a lot of disappearing e-mails. Nothing in the body of the messages contained any suspect strings, phrases like “Nigerian bank,” “unclaimed inheritance” or “male enhancement.” They came from different users on different servers and contained no other filter-trigging attributes.

Except for one thing. The common denominator was a benign abbreviation in the users’ e-mail signatures. The accepted abbreviation for Oxfordshire is Oxon (a shortening of the old Latin name for the region). Oxon, when followed by its postal code (OX), was a close enough match for the anxiety drug Xanax to trigger a false positive and send messages straight to the trash. So, unless you live in this town, you might think twice about shortening your address.

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One More Thing To Do Today

December 29, 2010

The last thing you need at the end of a work day is one more to-do. But skipping this one last task may be making time at home as stressful as time in the office. Time management trainers at Franklin Covey recommend a to-do-list trick that helps you leave your work at the office: spend a few minutes at the end of today writing your tasks for tomorrow.

It’s a little counter-intuitive. Most of us just want to put out the last brush fire of the day and head home. The danger with that plan is what another time management guru, David Allen, refers to as walking around with too much stuff in your head. You leave the office with a head full of nagging worries about what needs to get done tomorrow. You spend the night worrying about them, distracting yourself from friends, family and fun without actually getting anything done.

The end-of-day to-do list frees your mind to focus on nothing but fun till you open your office door the next morning. It’s a way to bring closure to a work day and create a hard line between work and home life. On some days, it may even remind you that you’re actually getting things done.

Posted by Postbox

My Spammer. My Lover.

December 27, 2010

The NY Times’ David Pogue posted a e-mail conversation between a reader of his column and an e-mail spammer. The spam scam is of the “need money for a flight home” variety.

Pogue’s reader takes the bait and begins a back-and-forth that forces increasingly awkward replies from the spammer. (The good bit starts halfway through.) The reader is a playwright and the thread reads like a very short story. Here’s when Postbox’s Conversation View would come in really handy. http://nyti.ms/g9xbtC

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Christmas Eve a Paid Holiday?

December 24, 2010

A higher percentage of U.S. employers plan to treat Christmas Eve as a paid holiday for employees in 2010 than in 2009, according to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll. Part of the reason for the change by employers might be that the federal government will treat December 24th as a federal holiday because Christmas falls on a Saturday. Meanwhile, slightly less than half of those surveyed said their organizations will treat the Monday after Christmas as a paid holiday in 2010. Details of the study include the following tidbits:

  • Christmas Eve, Dec. 24 - 79 percent; 42 percent of 542 respondents in 2009 said this was the case. Only 10 percent plan to close early in 2010 vs. 33 percent for in 2009
  • Monday after Christmas, Dec. 27 - 40 percent plan to close early
  • New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31 - 48 percent; 21 percent in 2009. In 2010, 16 percent plan to close early vs. 25 percent in 2009
  • New Year’s Day, Jan. 1 - 98 percent; 97 percent in 2009

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Mail Like a Mob Boss

December 23, 2010

Wordy e-mails don’t just slow readers down, they may make you look like a schmuck. Take a tip from mob bosses and super villains: powerful people don’t waste time by talking too much. Nowhere is this more true than in the follow-up e-mail. If you’re following up on a proposal, don’t restate your sales pitch. Keep your message short and include an actionable question. If your recipient’s not ready to respond to your question, three more paragraphs won’t get him there. Over-explaining can push the other way, cheapening your offer and making you seem desperate. After all, would you rather do business with Don Corleone or Tommy DeVito?

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Lost In Translation

December 22, 2010

We’ve all written e-mails we regret having sent. Sometimes, even the ones you don’t send can get you in trouble. In Wales, a government translator set his auto-responder and went on vacation. While he was gone, an English-speaking town council member sent an email requesting a translation for a new road sign. The response came back almost immediately - in Welsh. The town council member passed it on to the sign maker (another English speaker) and the sign went up. Bi-lingual locals were puzzled by the new sign. The English read: “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” The Welsh half read: “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.” The sign stayed up just long enough for a picture.

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