I pride myself on being quick to respond to messages and my colleagues often express surprise at how up to date I am on information that has been sent to me. I do this because I am an information worker. If you are reading this there is a good chance that you are, too. And to be effective in these roles you need to actively and ruthlessly maintain your information ecosystem.

In our line of work we create value when we generate new code, or designs, or any other form of idea. But no sufficiently ambitious idea lives in a vacuum. Ideas only make sense in the context of other work done by other workers. Ideas are constantly in competition with others in the marketplace. Being informed about the context and market for our ideas is as important to our success as the ideas themselves.

Your ability to be effective is a function of your ability to efficiently ingest the information around you. Without this you have no chance of synthesizing something valuable. And this is why you end up plugged into vast communication networks of email, messages, slacks, chats, posts, video calls, all-hands, meetings, and any number of other channels.

In information work the cardinal sin is to block another team. You are one person and they may be many which means every second wasted risks being multiplied. We should all aspire to develop reputations of increasing leverage.

On the other hand, if you aren’t careful you could spend the whole day unblocking others only to find you haven’t made any progress of your own. You cannot allow the urgent to overtake the important and many of these channels convey only the urgency of a task.

How do you stay informed and advance your own work while also keeping others informed so they can do the same?

1/ Have A System for managing your communication across all channels.

No single system for managing communication is inherently better than another, it is just a matter of what works for you. The properties of a system that is working well for you:

  • You feel well informed and rarely hear new information secondhand.
  • If you do get information later than would have been useful, you debug what channel you weren’t in and amend your systems to prevent it from happening again.
  • You feel the communication you consume is high signal and reading it is a good use of time.
  • If you have just consumed information that is noisy, figure out how to eliminate it from that channel in the future. Do this in real time as the action to be taken on that item. You can unsubscribe, set up inbox rules, or give feedback to the author.
  • You instinctively know what channel to use to send a message given your goal and audience.
  • If you aren’t getting timely responses or thoughtful ones you may need to reconsider. But also do not abuse high urgency channels like chat when the content does not merit it.
  • You feel in control of your time and attention and you don’t allow others to hijack it.
  • You confidently redirect them to the proper channel. For example I often respond to chat messages that are not urgent with a simple “Thanks, please email this to me and I’ll take a look.”

Managing your information ecosystems is a bit like tending a garden. It is a small amount of work to maintain order if you do it every day, but if you aren’t proactive things can be quickly overrun.

2/ Know your role and set expectations.

  • If you are the decision maker then you can either make a decision or ask for more information that you require to be able to do so.
  • If you aren’t the decision maker then you should supply any additional commentary you have as quickly as possible so that person has full context.
  • If the decision maker is not on the thread you should either add them or do whatever you can to unblock getting it to them. * If you aren’t sure who is the decision maker, then that is the first thing to clarify.
  • Even the best system can be overwhelmed during busy times, and at those times it can be helpful to send short expectation setting responses so people understand the timeline you are working on. Something as simple as “I’ll get to this by the end of the week” can help people plan effectively.
  • If you are constantly overwhelmed, but you feel your system is working as effectively as possible, then you need to either delegate more or ask your manager for help.

3/ Be proactive but not formulaic.

Your communication preferences do not live in a vacuum and affect those around you. If you ignore emails or send disruptive work chats then you are contributing to a net decrease in overall productivity. One thing you can do is be more proactive.

Reactive communication is much more expensive as it is interrupt driven and tends to be piecemeal rather than comprehensive. It is beneficial to be more proactive in sending out thoughtful communication to a consistent group of peers to ensure you are all on the same page. Those regular communications can also serve as a shorthand reference for future ad hoc conversations which will save time. However if they become formulaic they end up being a chore to compose and are rarely read. So if you don’t have anything new to say or a new way to say it then don’t bother.

What Works For Me: Inbox Ten

For those who are curious, my system is Inbox Ten. That means I aim to end every day with fewer than ten emails in my inbox. I also have fewer than ten open chat threads across all interfaces. I’ve also read all relevant notifications in internal tools, read all relevant posts in internal groups I care about, and started rough drafts of any relevant proactive communications I intend to produce.

Email is the backbone of my system and I treat every email I receive as an action to be taken.

  • If an email doesn’t require action, then I delete immediately after reading. I can always search my archives if I need to reference it later.
  • If an email is low signal, then I immediately find a way to unsubscribe from things like it in the future.
  • If an email duplicates another channel (such as internal tools), I eliminate it from my email inbox
  • If an email can be handled with a short response I reply immediately and then delete
  • If an email requires a longer or more researched response then I skip it for now and use blocks of time set aside during the day to respond and then delete.
  • If an email contains details for an appointment I add it to my calendar and then delete.
  • If someone sends me a chat that isn’t time sensitive, I redirect them to email
  • If there is a group chat thread that is too noisy or not time sensitive, I mute it indefinitely
  • I hide or archive all chats once they have concluded, and remove myself from irrelevant group chats
  • I proactively consume feeds, notification channels, and groups once or twice a day.

One of the most important tools you can use, regardless of channel, is to just decline to engage. If you don’t have anything to add, don’t have time to take on more, or just aren’t interested: say so. Don’t let it linger in your inbox or get yourself talked into work you don’t think is a good use of your time.

When I am initiating communication:

  • If I have a question that is important but not time sensitive I send it over email
  • If I need a decision that is important but not time sensitive I gather all the information required including a timeline by which I hope for a response and send it over email
  • If I have information that is important for them to have but not time sensitive, I send it over email and label it as an FYI.
  • If I have a time sensitive or urgent question (which should be relatively rare, if I am doing things correctly) I will send it over chat either 1:1 or to an ad hoc group.
  • If we are doing real time coordination (for example during a meeting) I will create an ad hoc chat group for it
  • If I’d like to have an informal discussion I generally do it with standing group chats or group posts, though sometimes create an ad hoc group.

One thing you don’t see here are Google Docs. I do create them from time to time, mostly to allow for line level comments and questions, but they are payloads for these messages and not the content themselves.

A good sign your system is functioning is if you use it on yourself. For example, I often email myself throughout the day with work I need to attend to.