e-mail – nails, mirrors, and the Pascal-Einstein Condensate

Email.  It’s a curse, of course, and like all real world curses, not one you could manage without.  The pain of handling it came up at a meeting at work recently; it’s a very very busy time, and the resulting volume and response time expectations are now in a space where none of us feel comfortable.  But, since most volume inside our area comes from us or one of our teams, it feels like a solution should be in our gift … and so I took the action to come up with a few suggestions.

There are loads of suggestions on the web (see here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here, and here for a tiny selection). But, few seem to really address the flavour of load at hand.  So, here’s my thinking on three views of the problem that might help – not everything is a nail, your enemy in the mirror, and the Pascal-Einstein condensate.

Not everything is a nail

As the old adage goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  There are things that e-mail is great for – making requests, sending information, and conversations between two people .. but there are some where it caters for the need, but only very badly.  It gets used because that’s what people have.  A great example is the ‘what if’ type free-ranging conversations where many people are involved and drift into and out of the conversation as their interest and time allows.  This is a situation where a web forum is ideal, with clear topics, threaded conversations, one train of thinking that everyone contributes to, and an enduring record that can be looked at afterwards … and yet, at least where I work, it is used very very rarely.  The approach using e-mail often works so haphazardly that you spend far more time sweeping up half truths from groups you never knew were copied in than the value of the various contributors ever adds.

Another example is the short ‘are you there’ type messages where instant messaging works so much better – you get to know if people are around, and open to a discussion, instantly; and, it can be a very rapid way of addressing a question.  But, again, one that is not frequently used in a work context.

Clearly, this is not something that everyone can simply change – it requires stable and scalable systems to be made available.  But, the payback is likely to be great, since the theft of time and effectiveness is material.  If it is possible to address this then it should make a real dent in e-mails used for the wrong purpose.  So,  Use the right tool, not just e-mail.

Your enemy in the mirror

Most people I know have challenges with e-mail, and describe the volume as a problem … but few describe themselves as sinners and irritants of others … and yet very little comes from outside the network, so if we want to find the villains, we could do worse than to look in a mirror.  But, the challenge is that it is so easy and fast to generate work, and the more overworked we become the faster we tend to respond, and hence generate work for others.  Who can honestly say that when under pressure they have never done a ‘reply all’ with a contribution to a discussion; never sent a request that wasn’t really thought through, had no timeline on it, or was sent scatter-gun, not to just people with actions; never sent a mail to all meeting attendees with actions for only some of them, or CC’d everyone who MIGHT be interested, irrespective of how many of those mails you have to wade through yourself.  As a radical suggestion, drop all CC’s.  You shouldn’t assume that a CC will be read, and if it doesn’t matter if it is, then just don’t.  Stop doing it to others, and encourage others to stop doing it to you.

All this can be summed up in a a fairly simple guideline.  Aim to take as much time to write a mail as the total of all the time that recipients will spend reading and understanding it. That way you end up as a net reducer of mail load … and if you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem!

The Pascal-Einstein condensate*

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte” as Blaise Pascal wrote in 1656.  Or, in transalation, “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short“. We’ve all written long and winding emails when a short and well constructed one would have been better.  I confess that I am a well known transgressor.  It’s a particular case of the general point above, but one where I have seen as frequent a mis-step in the other direction, so one I wanted to pull out specifically.  Just because you have made an email short does not mean you have made it good.  It is all too easy to over-simplify a point, and miss something important – and I see it pretty frequently.

Einstein is reputed to have summed this up by saying “as simple as possible, but no simpler”.  I say reputed since I now find he didn’t quite say this … what he actually said was “Eine Theorie ist desto eindrucksvoller, je grösser die Einfachheit ihrer Prämissen ist, je verschiedenartigere Dinge sie verknüpft, und je weiter ihr Anwendungsbereich ist.” which translates as “A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises is, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended is its area of applicability.”  As simple as possible, but no simpler sums it up pretty well though, and has the virtue of being, well, simpler!

So, my third suggestion is that You should take the time to ensure an e-mail is condensed, but only as far as is sensible –  which I hereby dub the Pascal-Einstein condensate.


I make no pretence to be a saint here – in fact I have a suspicion that I am in the large majority who could be far far better.  I pretty much know what good looks like, and I am sure most people do, I just don’t do it often enough.  So, I just have to do it, and continue to to do it. If we all did then we’d be in a better place.

*Reference is a rather geeky one to the Bose-Einstein Condensate – see here.  Sorry.

This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s