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Seeking Causes of my Non-Zero Inbox

Over the course of a few days, I have whittle my unhandled inboxes down from 300ish to 200ish.

In doing so, I’ve learned some things, learned some meta-things, and relearned some things. Most of these are lessons broader than email.

book and brown surface
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Better to not wait through many years of failure before reading the directions.

When it is not going to all get done, prioritization becomes important.

Lack of visibility makes prioritization impossible rather than simply very difficult.

It’s not the time, it’s the dread …

And perhaps most importantly, It’s not the time, it’s the dread. Maybe dread is not quite the right word, but it will do. Over the past 24 hours, I have several times started at the top of each inbox and handled email after email until I came to one that I “didn’t want to deal with.” I didn’t delete it, I didn’t push it into the future, I didn’t turn it into a task on my to-do list, I didn’t skip it, I just stopped (gave up) on that inbox and went to the next inbox, or left email altogether.

It’s the same message each time. In my ordinary life, outside of running an experiment, this might go one for day or even weeks. Right now it is salient because I am taking measurements. It raises three questions in mind that probably have been deserving of thought and attention for years. And of course not getting it.

optical illusion
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Question One: What is it about that message?

Question Two: How do I recover from this?

Question Three; How can I prevent this from happening in the first place?

I am reminded of the research into chronic pain. The pain itself in many patients wasn’t the biggest problem. There was more suffering and more life impairment from the anticipation of future pain and memory of past pain. For me, the unpredictability of the pain, or the mere possibility of the pain, would be the most debilitating issue.

Lots of tasks that I not only dread but actively avoid, I avoid because the possibility of something really annoying happening is large in my mind, though generally not objectively large in either scale or probability.

Returning to “Question One: What is it about that message?” it is time to sample and count. I can feel the dread.

The first example is a long piece from our investment advisor about a family of short-term bond-alternative funds. We invested in one of them. The email has information that is either praising my decision, questioning my decision, or suggesting some alternative. I am not going to actually change my decision so it is not worth reading, but still, I don’t want to deal with it. At least that is what my memory tells me. My memory is wrong. It is not a five-screen long message. It is five lines. Easy to read. Is it only a problem because I was hallucinating?

The second example is a short email with an embedded video. It is presumably installation instructions from a product that I was excited about beta testing until I found out that one critical feature I need is not yet in the product. I hate videos. One of my colleagues said that for software instructions if he had to choose between written instructions on the side of a live yak and a video, the yak would be an easy choice. He understates it.

In this case, I expect there is another annoyance waiting for me. The software integrates two unrelated tools and I have different user-ids on those two tools.

The video was useless, terribly produced, and lasted only 15 seconds. I had spent much more than 15 seconds not dealing with it. Watching the video, having the install file, and filing a bug report complete with screenshots took less than 3 minutes.

The third one has several issues. The key issue is that they messed up the in-line response formatting.

There were other problems with the nature of their attachments but hadn’t got far enough for that to discourage me yet. This one feels “real” to me unlike the other two which feel like products of my imagination. (Doesn’t that sound better than hallucinations). It took less than three minutes to read through the chaos of the message body and write a non-inline response. Not pleasant but not hard. It took a lot of work to deal with the attachments, as I had to rewrite long documents from scratch, but that is neither here more there.

The fourth had the same issues as the second.

The fifth is a document that I need to file and don’t know where to file it. Thinking about that is hard or at least feels hard. This is a sign of a larger issue of course.  Regardless, here is one non-terrible place to put it. Turns out that there is already a copy of it in that exact place.

The sixth is a social email. It asks light upbeat questions about mutual friends where the news I have to share is not upbeat. It suggests getting together and I doubt that the schedules will ever work. None of the “bad news” is going to get better by my waiting. Answering was not fun but took less than three minutes.

The seventh is a very late set of answers that I needed to write an article about someone. I am not working on that series anymore, but it’s not that hard to shift gears and write that article. And assuredly not that hard to at least send an acknowledgment.

The eighth is a message that I have written a response to, but am waiting for the “all clear to send.” I haven’t been reminding the approver that I need the all clear from them and they probably don’t know that I am waiting on them.


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Written by Russell Brand

Russell has started three successful companies, one of which helped agencies of the federal government become very early adopters of open source software, long before that term was coined. His first project saved The American taxpayer 250 million dollars. In his work within federal agency, he was often called, “the arbiter of truth,” facilitating historically hostile groups and factions to effectively work together towards common goals

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