How to Break Free from Email Jail

How often are people's email privileges suspended (aka, "mail jail") because they're inundated with a blizzard of questions, status updates, notifications, and other non-mission critical information? Most inboxes — and calendars — are gorged with junk because the dominant paradigm of communication is information "push." This means that information is being pushed onto people when it's ready, but not necessarily when the recipient needs it. Think of all of the emails and documents you have going back and forth. Irrespective of the value of the information, how often is it relevant to you at that moment?

A lesson from lean manufacturing
One of the critical steps in lean manufacturing (or bringing lean to any other process, for that matter) is shifting to a "pull" system. In a lean system, raw materials and work-in-process inventory are "pulled" from the preceding step only when they're needed by the downstream step, rather than being "pushed" onto the downstream step when the previous operation is complete. Each worker has only what they need at that moment — the item they're working on — in front of them at any given time.

In an office environment, of course, the work-in-process is information. An information "pull" system is one in which the downstream worker is able to get the information she needs when she needs it — not pushed into her email inbox, dropped onto the corner of her desk, or broadcast in a status update meeting. A pull system makes work easier for both upstream and downstream workers — that is, both information producers and consumers — by reducing the likelihood that critical information will be lost in a barrage of less important emails. More importantly, because a pull system is asynchronous (i.e., I can deliver my information when I'm done, even if you're not ready, and you can get information when you need it, even if I'm not around), a pull system syncs the differing rates of work among different people and teams. Think of a pull system as the informational equivalent of a clutch in a car meshing two gears that rotate at different speeds.

Many people are already doing this in their private lives: they use RSS feeds, webpage bookmarks, Instapaper, etc. to consume information when they're ready for it — they "pull" it when they want, rather than have it pushed on them. Pulling information allows them to smooth the flow of information they receive. They get to drink from a water fountain rather than a fire hose.

How to create a "pull" system
Recognizing the cognitive and administrative burden of information push, some organizations are moving towards pull systems by setting up internal social media sites to reduce email blasts and enable workers to tap into co-workers' knowledge and experience when they need it. Other companies set up Wikis.

Web-based project collaboration software like Kanban Flow, Trello, and Asana provide another way of shifting communication from a push to a pull mode. The software makes progress visible to everyone on a team, and facilitates multi-party communication on an as-needed basis. Low-tech visual management systems — Post-It notes stuck on centrally located whiteboards, for example — can also serve as information dashboards for managers to track their teams' progress without the need for repetitive and time-consuming status update meetings or email blasts.

One of the most creative ways I've seen to shift to information pull comes from a company that provides insurance appraisals for high-value items. The firm used to be in the ninth circle of email hell: its 38 appraisers work out of their houses from all over the country, and virtually all communication about what work needed to be done was via email. The result? Everyone was inundated with email, and both the appraisers and management had difficulty tracking their work.

In the new system, each appraiser has an inbox-folder and an outbox-folder in Dropbox. A person at headquarters cycles through all the folders on a regular cadence, dropping off new work, picking up completed work, and moving the completed work to the next step in the process. Finally, there's an Excel file that automatically shows the status of all the in/outboxes and each person's workload, so that anyone can see the status of the ongoing appraisals. Email is now reserved for other communication — and volume has gone down significantly.

Moving from information push to pull means a lower cognitive burden, fewer meetings, less overwhelm, and better workflow. It paves the way for greater focus and higher quality work. How can you begin to shift the communication paradigm in your organization?

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