Getting off the email hamster wheel.

by Gil Yehuda on July 24, 2009

in Enterprise 2.0

Are you a knowledge worker?  If so, let me ask you this — what if you could fix the way email and meetings have taken over your workday? Emails and meetings are the two biggest killers of workplace productivity; and yet they are two of the most essential tools to the workplace.

For fun, I asked the world of Twitter how they feel about email.  I used TweetFeel to search Twitter and collect sentiment.  Not terribly scientific, but cute.  It’s no surprise that the word “email” is associated with negative sentiments.

Some Enterprise 2.0 vendors suggest that email is so bad that you should buy their tool so that you can collaborate and communicate without the problems that email poses. In some ways the argument is appealing.  We like to hear ways to get rid of email.  But skeptics feel this argument falls flat.  They say:

  1. Let’s be realistic, email in the workplace is not going away so soon.  We are addicted to it, and our workplace runs on it.
  2. Many corporate functions rely upon email based workflow — not the least of which — scheduling meeting!  Moreover IT knows how to manage email (usually).
  3. Who is to say that we won’t simply translate poor email behaviors to some new collaboration tool.  Why won’t those suffer the same problems we have today with email?

Some vendors say: “Email storage costs are very high, so reducing email volumes will save money.  Collaboration tools reduce email, and therefore will result in positive ROI.”  But the reality is not as simple.  Many business have to store “unstructured” data for legal reasons.  So moving off email does not make that requirement go away — it just shifts the problem elsewhere.  One can argue that new collaboration platforms are more efficient, but still, the client has to understand what is involved in order to remain in compliance, and be willing to invest in making that happen.  I have seen some clever ways of addressing this problem — some  create programs that download content from E2.0 platforms and put them into an exiting managed records system. But sometimes these are just hack jobs, and they come at an expense to maintain.  They create yet another information channel, another set of code to maintain, and another system that can fail and may need to be tested when some dependent element is upgraded.

Let me share a different approach to the problem of email and meetings — that being to address the behaviors around their use.  Imagine if knowledge workers learned a disciplined approach to emailing and to conducting meetings.  What if there was a method of managing these tools such that many of the frustrations we have with it would be mitigated significantly (or even go away).  That would be fantastic!

Let me share with you the best guide I have found so far.  Note: this is not a paid endorsement.  I’m sharing this because I believe it to be true and helpful to you.  I think the guidance that Mike Song has presented in his Hamster Revolution books is the best I have seen.  Most knowledge workers today are burdened by email and meetings.  Mike and his team have thought very deeply about the core behavioral problems and the simplest solutions to those problems.  They have also gathered a ton of data to support their findings.  Their guidance is simple to understand and implement.  But like eating 5 servings of vegetables a day — success is in the doing, not the talking.

I came across Mike’s guidance by taking his class.  I also read his books, and got to know him a bit though a couple of conversations.  I think his guidance is highly relevant and useful to any knowledge worker in any industry. Seriously.

Let me share some tidbits that made a lot of sense to me.  One of the email suggestions is a method for organizing your email folders (this works for your drive folders too).  Create a categorization hierarchy that  is:

  1. Consistent.  Everyone can and should use the same hierarchy
  2. Deterministic. There are simple rules that determine where something would go.
  3. Simple.  We don’t want to spend too much time thinking about this.

Mike has one for you — called COTA.  Customers, Output, Team, and Administration.  Personally I’ve made some slight modifications for my own email folder — but they are based on COTA.  If you read the book you’ll see how this makes sense.  Rather than keeping your inbox stuffed with dead emails, file them in a consistent, deterministic, and simple manner.  It’s a discipline that will save you time and hassle.

Mike also shows how to use “power drafts” which are email and meeting request templates where you pre-fill in all the stuff you need to have in a good email.  You save the email as a template (he shows you how), and then you use that when ever you send out an email or a meeting request.  All emails have a Subject, Action, Background, and Close.  All meeting requests have Subject, Location, and Time (provided by the email client — e.g. Outlook, Notes, etc.)  as well as Objective, Agenda, Logistics, and Prep-work.

Mike’s latest book focuses on meeting — virtual ones in particular.  It’s full of simple and effective ideas that you can implement in your workplace to make better use of your time.

Can reading two books change your work habits?  It can, but it probably wont.  What if you took his class?  Maybe, but then you might revert back to your old habits again.  So (much like dieting and exercise) you need to be inspired to act, and you need to stick with it.  Good results are in your control.

I’m hoping that some email vendor (Microsoft, Google, IBM, etc.) picks up on these material from Cohesive Knowledge and makes the guidance that they articulated as the default behavior in their email tool.  That would make it a no-brainer for everyone to use and a huge benefit to all workplaces.  Good defaults are a gentle nudge (ooh that’s another book to talk about).  In the meantime, let me suggest you take a look at the Hamster Revolution.


Because I agree with Sameer Patel: Enterprise 2.0 is a state that Enterprises achieve by employing an appropriate set of social computing concepts. And I believe that email is relevant to all knowledge workers (whether we like it or not) – and is a social computing tool (albeit one that is full of limitations).  So getting better at email management improves — and potentially transforms — the Enterprise.  If it works for your company — then it’s “2.0″ enough for me.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard Harbridge July 27, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Good point from Gil on email use and technique: {People need to learn to frame their thoughts, messages, and input}


2 drgolden July 26, 2009 at 4:37 am

RT @tweetmeme Getting off the email hamster wheel.


3 Hadley Stern July 26, 2009 at 6:05 am

Great post, Gil and one that we all struggle with daily. The combination of email and meeting can make one feel productive but really is it just keeping busy?

Of course it is easy to slam email, something that in the last 15 years has totally reshaped the working (and personal) world. But I don’t think that just because some people have difficulty managing it means that it is bad. I’ve actually found the Covey approach helpful, and just reminding myself, as tempting as it is, not to just immediately go through email the first thing in the morning.

As for folders and organizing I find that almost as wasteful as over-checking email. My latest strategy is when I read an email that I need to follow-up on I simply deal with it then, or flag it for later. Otherwise I don’t bother moving email to folders and simply archive as the folder gets to big. I then rely on search to find anything I need in archives.

I think the enterprise 2.0 products and services that ignore email (and I realize the irony in me stating this regarding previous conversations about email and integration with forums) do so at their peril.

Finally, regarding meetings, my new strategy is to propose shorter times (30 minutes instead of 60 minutes) but the trick is to do it without offending the person of invited me. And, for meetings that I do myself I’m experimenting with 15 minute meeting.

And one more finally, I would contend that the biggest achilles heel of enterprise 2.0 is powerpoint. Powerpoint, for better or worse, is the primary communication tool within corporations. This is why, until this changes, I think that SharePoint will win.


4 Gil Yehuda July 26, 2009 at 9:21 am

Hadley, Thanks!
Exactly my point. Slamming email is easy and fun, but does not make us more productive. Some really good (proven) disciplines have a much better impact on our work. And I totally agree, E2.0 vendors that ignore email are running the risk of being irrelevant to their enterprise customers. Most of the popular vendors have some email integration, some more than others (e.g. allowing collaboration between people on the platform and others who insist on email-only).

The most recent Hamster Revolution book (for meetings) addresses meeting length too — suggesting hard-starts, 20 or 50 minute lengths (to accommodate the need for bio-breaks and to allow for hard-starts at your next meeting if they are “back-to-back”), and also suggests “mini-meetings”. Moreover the authors suggest a methodology to determine if you need to attend a meeting of not. There’s a lot of great ideas in this small book, that’s why I’m recommending it.

As for PowerPoint — we’ll that’s a post for another day. I’m slightly influenced by Edward Tufte’s loathing of the tool, but I think there is a way to use it right also. My recommendation here is the book “Beyond Bullet Points” — which is less extreme than “Presentation Zen”, and yet quite effective at helping you use PowerPoint in a very different manner.

To the readers: let me disclose to you that Hadley (and two other colleagues) taught me most of what I know about Enterprise 2.0 prior to my employment at Forrester (where I learned a bunch more).


5 Rex Lee July 26, 2009 at 9:49 pm

Gil, Good post. As easy as it is to slam e-Mail, I can remember the time before e-mail… And it was NOT better… As for powerpoint, I think the same thing applies. It’s easy to slam powerpoint, but the same bad habits people employ to build decks (e.g. Death by bullets) are often transferable to other social authoring tools such as wikis.


6 pam strayer July 25, 2009 at 11:06 am

I think it’s interesting to see tools like Yakabod’s approach to email – it becomes a tool used for communicating with the outside world, not the internal enterprise world – how cool is that!

( is my other site)


7 Gil Yehuda July 25, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Interesting. I have not seen that part of Yakabod’s demo. But indeed I was impressed with what I saw. But my message here was to address the many readers who are not yet moving to a “2.0″ platform to replace email. These people can significantly improve their workplace information management and collaboration environment by simply using the tools they already have — but in a much better manner. Moreover, even when you move to a new collab platform — we need to make sure that the same poor behaviors that make collaboration difficult in email and virtual meetings don’t still plague us. It would be a real shame to invest a chunk of money (even a small chunk of money) on a new collab platform and still have an information mess. The mess is largely due to the fact that most of us are not using the tools we have to their fullest extent. These Hamster Revolution books (more precisely, the classes that the authors offer) can help knowledge workers tame their work lives.


8 KerrieAnneC July 25, 2009 at 3:11 am

fr Gil Yehuda blog -Getting off the email hamster wheel. via @AddToAny -at last-realistic balanced view-tips to optimise


9 Gil Yehuda July 25, 2009 at 12:48 am

Blog post #e20 Getting off the email hamster wheel. – Are you a knowledge worker?  If so, let me ask you this ̵…


10 Gil Yehuda July 24, 2009 at 10:47 pm

@getmoredone take a read: (comments welcome).


11 Gil Yehuda July 24, 2009 at 10:45 pm

New Blog post: Getting off the email hamster wheel: (two books you should read to improve your workplace)


12 Mike Gilronan July 24, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Nice to see guidance about tools we use every day, Gil, and thank you for having a relativistic definition of “2.0″. The concept of “power drafts” alone has me interested enough to read this book.

I found “Send” to be a great book about e-mail as well:


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