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Surviving with gmail

This post is not really meant to be entertaining, so much as a cry out into the darkness for comrades in similar condition.

I am, of course, referring to email.

Since starting my job 26 months ago, I have received email messages about 58,889 separate topics, which is an average of 113 per business day. I suspect this is a light load for a Google employee, because I do not subscribe to any of the high-traffic social lists or mail-bots. But that's still a crapload of mail.

At 113 topics per day, I was pretty much living in my inbox, and not getting anything done. I needed help, and I needed GMail to help me.

(I should explain that I probably only have this problem because I am a very slow reader; 250wpm typically. If you read quickly, you might not understand what it's like to feel crushed by just a few hundred messages.)

There's a ton of discussion about strategies for processing email by productivity gurus, such as Getting Things Done, Inbox Zero, etc. Unfortunately they're not very specific, so allow me to get specific:

Attempt to cope #1: Archive
The most basic thing I did to be successful with GMail is to archive stuff when I'm done with it. At first I was tempted to treat my inbox as a place where everything I needed to get done sat until I finished it. This was really unworkable though, because I'd look at the same emails again and again. "Nope, that's still not done, nope that's still not done." It was a hard lesson, but I realized that I'll never finish everything. Now if an email isn't something I can respond to immediately, I move it to a task list in a Google doc that I keep, and archive it anyway. This is recommended by most productivity gurus, and I suspect that most sane GMail users eventually adopt this basic strategy.

Attempt to cope #2: Filters
The next most basic thing to do is to make filters. I made some. They trapped mail for all of the different lists I was on, with a label for each list. I would read whatever came to my inbox, and read the filtered messages days later. (Days eventually became weeks, if you must know.) The problem with this is that lists that my team and project use are really important, and I couldn't afford to be unresponsive and unaware of my team and its customers.

This strategy also filters broad announcements, 80% of which are useless but a few are important ("sign up by tomorrow for the company picnic!" "You are being reorg'd to a new VP!" "We are going to delete all your code unless you respond by friday!") I missed a couple of those and it was pretty embarrassing.

Attempt #3: Less filters
Next I weakened the filters with "unless contains" clauses so that my team lists and the big announce lists come to my inbox, so that I could be responsive. This had two problems. #1, some but not all of inbox was important, and #2, the volume was just way too high. I remember spending entire weeks solid just reading email.

Attempt #4: Label and archive separately
I needed a middle-ground between filtering aggressively and missing important stuff. So I split my filters in two--- one set of rules that aggressively tagged lots of stuff with a label called "lists". "Lists" means "this is not addressed to you, and is not about your team." Then I made a different set of filters that archived anything that did not contain certain keywords (my name, my team name, the word "announce", the words "read" and "important" in the subject line, etc.) Important things were still sometimes tagged as "list", but they still came to my inbox where I could see that they were marked as "probably unimportant" and review them more quickly.

Attempt #5: Search the inbox
The list label did not help reduce inbox volume, but it allowed me to run the GMail search "label:inbox label:lists", which would quickly turn up the list of crap in my inbox that was probably unimportant. I can run this search, select all, glance over the subject lines, read the ones that look important, and archive the rest in a few seconds, instead of reading them all. Cutting down a 60 message inbox suddenly became much faster.

Attempt #6: Search the inbox more
If you don't use GMail then you may not understand that searching is really really fast, like under 1 second. I found that I can search for unimportant things to cull them quickly, but also use search to consolidate like emails and process them together. For example, when I feel like reviewing what the team is doing, or if I owe anybody a code review, I can search "label:inbox 'code review'" and then process only one kind of information.

This lets me get in the flow of looking at code, and it avoids the conceptual interruption of having to think about code for 3 minutes, followed by product strategy for 1 minute, followed by miatas for 30 seconds, followed by code again. I'm much faster whipping through 10 CRs in a row.

Attempt #7: And search more
I recently started using inbox search not only to cull unimportant and like-kind stuff quickly, but also to stay afloat and responsive when my inbox gets huge in the middle of the day and I'm buried. I search for "label:inbox rus", which turns up threads that need my attention. If an email has my nickname, and not my email address, then it's probably not from an automated system--- it's probably a real person who knows me well who needs my input. This is almost by definition the most important email I receive. I process these messages more slowly, but when I'm done I know I can safely ignore my email for a couple of hours, even if it's jammed full of unread stuff.

And this is what I do now. Yes, I get a fuck-ton of email. And yet I'm able to get my inbox down to zero a couple times a week, and I feel productive, effective, and responsive. I'm telling you this because it's taken me over two years to develop these strategies, and I really wish someone had told me when I started using GMail, so that I didn't have to flail uselessly for all this time.

So how much mail do you get?

Just the essentials

I think Microsoft is stupid because of the software they write. But I often think they're stupider for the software that they don't write.

For example, I recently got a DVD burner. Since Windows doesn't come with a burning tool, I had to install the software that came with it, "Nero", which appears to have been written by terrorists.

"Nero" sure does sound like one product, but once installed it's revealed to be a cornucopia of miserable little programs. A veritable infection of software. None of which, I'll point out, is labelled "BURN A DVD".

This kind of program should be taken behind the barn and shot.

Best banner ad evar

I got this ad when I recently looked at Google's stock price. It's a shame because I happen to think that Eric is a genius, my options are being repriced, and I find my Google job to be a pretty great reason to get up in the mornings.

But still, it was hilarious.

(For the record, I was looking at this page to research the behavior of the flash chart on the Google Finance page, which shares some technology with my project. I don't actually know what our stock price is.)

Google fights climate change

This morning my division, Google.org, announced our Energy Information campaign, which includes my project, Google PowerMeter.

Why is Google doing this? Well, Google thinks about information. A lot. So it might not surprise you to hear that we think getting better energy usage information to more people is going to be key in fighting climate change--- the more you know, the smarter you can be about saving energy and reducing carbon output.

My goal for PowerMeter is to one day integrate with every utility provider in the world, and bring energy usage information to everyone, everywhere. It's a long-term plan as Google projects go, but it's a pretty fast-acting plan as climate change initiatives go--- and in the next couple of years it could save as much energy as all hybrid cars on the road today.

It's exciting for me to think we could have such a big impact just by writing some software. :)

The views expressed on this site are mine personally, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.