A Manifesto for Speed

8/28/09Follow @wroush

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hitting the snooze button on my alarm clock. I’d just have to deal with the consequences later, in the form of a larger stack of urgent, unanswered messages. It’s true, as Stephen Covey observed, that what’s urgent is not always the same as what’s important—but some e-mails are both.

So I don’t think Freeman’s exhortation to use e-mail more sparingly is very practical. But I’m having trouble dismissing his essay from my mind. As far as I can figure out, it’s stuck there for three reasons.

1. Freeman’s critique of e-mail amounts to an attack on a whole way of life (mine—and probably yours).

I don’t merely depend on broadband, e-mail, content management systems, search engines, cell phones, and the like—I write about them. In fact, I believe they are emblematic of the exponential technological advances that are making knowledge more accessible, improving health, extending lifespans, and freeing more people than ever before from manual drudgery and allowing them to engage in creative work. This exponential change is where we got the “X” in Xconomy, and it is ultimately the main force that will lift us out of recession into yet another cycle of innovation and growth.

So when Freeman writes that “only two things grow indefinitely…cancer and the corporation,” I sputter with incredulity. It’s clear that industrial societies have hit on at least two other wonderful things that support indefinite growth, or have been for decades now: semiconductor technology, and even more important, a system of organizing people and capital around ideas and transforming them into products and services that the market wants—that is to say, industrial R&D and the venture-funded startup model. This system works as well as it does in part because digital communications have reduced the delays, frictions, and inefficiencies built into any cooperative endeavor. All I can say is that without e-mail, and lots of it, there’s no way that most Web companies—including Xconomy, with our small staff and three bureaus located thousands of miles apart—could operate.

2. Freeman throws the baby out with the bathwater.

“Efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships,” Freeman writes. Fair enough. But what if being more efficient about our unavoidable work tasks is the very thing that gives us time later to be mindful and to invest in real relationships? What I’m suggesting is that e-mail itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that most people are never taught how to handle it efficiently.

In his book Bit Literacy, which I cited back in February in a column on e-mail overload, user experience consultant Mark Hurst acknowledges that “Bits are heavy…[they] weigh people down, mentally and emotionally, with incessant calls for attention and engagement.” But unplugging from e-mail and making “Don’t send” your mantra, as Freeman advises, is an entirely unwarranted response to this problem. There’s no need to stop using e-mail, or even significantly ration its use, when there are relatively simple ways to manage your inbox so that you don’t feel like you’re constantly overwhelmed.

Hurst advocates a “zero-inbox” strategy: dealing with every e-mail in your inbox and emptying it out at least once a day. To briefly repeat Hurst’s method for doing this (the details are in the February column), he suggests … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Bill Ghormley

    Right on, Wade.
    Caffeine + Cable + Communication at light speed = Exponential Connection to a Compelling Cosmos (more poetry, too)
    I learned the “bliss of the empty in box” from Bruce Bullen, now acting CEO at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
    Bruce actually takes it a step further — he never leaves for home until his ENTIRE inbox is less than one screen in length, which means he opens and processes all but a dozen holdover emails daily. Noting Bruce’s effectiveness when working with him, I try to get to a zero inbox at least 2-3 times a week. (;-> Wag

  • http://www.flxpt.com Chris Noble

    We’re all different aren’t we? For me, 5 days in a row of constant interruptions & information, followed by 2 days of being unplugged, works well. Freemen seems to need a different environment. The key is figuring out what environment works for you and how to find it.

  • http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com Craig Roth

    I’m happy to see voices of reason popping up here and there among the din of “information overload is destroying your brain” messages. I’m not saying there isn’t an issue here that needs to be managed and that many people don’t have dysfunctional message processes. I use reason to mean applying skepticism and objectivity (as Chris does above pointing out each person has a different environment). Information overload comes across too often with evangelical zeal. That’s why I recommend avoiding the “information overload” term and its negative associtations entirely and describe it in terms of a management issue (enterprise attention management).

    More on the “attention management” tag of my blog:
    http://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/category/attention-management/

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