Compartments: Everything in its place

We love our email inboxes. Email is so ubiquitous, and so simple, and therein lies the secret to its success and power. However, that simplicity comes at a cost, and so we also hate our email inboxes. We’re constantly triaging and managing every message, whether it’s high-priority fire drill from the boss or just a heads up from a partner. The +1 reply-all on the 3rd fork of a protracted debate, and the important sales lead have to be caught, directed, flagged, or dealt with somehow. Or not…

We’ve also been provided with the ability to create complex rules, categories, and reminders, but we have to spend time setting all that up. I was speechless when I saw an email thread describing a work-around someone had found to get around the limit on the number of Exchange inbox rules. Here’s a forum question asking how to create over 100 rules for managing their deluge. Wow. What happens when this guy gets a new job? You get to set them up all over again? Wow.

We’ve all seen those coworkers that just throw up their hands and don’t use rules or folders at all. Search is how they find everything. For me, having to search for everything leaves way too much up to chance and memory. Not for the guy I once saw with 18,000+ unread email. I don’t know how he sleeps.

Let me paint a different picture. What if the categories and rules (“compartments”) were set up for you? What if you knew exactly where to go for a conversation about project XYZ before you even got the first message, let alone before you created a rule for it?* What if the place that you went to get all the information about a project was the same for every member of the team?

The Carpool post asks a revealing question: “When was the last time you shared an interesting news article by sending a mass email to your friends?” It’s probably been a long time. You still get those from your great Uncle Larry, but you certainly don’t send them. You post them to Facebook (if it was about our awesome new elected official), or to LinkedIn (if it was about a new marketing technique), or to Instagram if it was a great pic of Hawaii. In our personal lives, we’ve learned to instinctively share different things in different ways depending on context.

Why should it be any different at work?

I understand the allure of a single place for everything. “One Ring to Rule Them All” is a seductive notion, but it’s also elusive. Even newer experiences like Slack or Teams can’t do it all. At some point, you have to switch to JIRA or PowerPoint, Visual Studio or Photoshop, because you need a best-in-breed experience for that task or type of communication.

Pick up your phone. What’s your home screen like? I’ll bet it’s different than mine, but we both have lots of “places to go” and yet we both know right where to go. Your “one place” is your phone, not a single app on your phone.

“But I don’t want another place to go!”

So, instead of asking how you can get every possible communication to come to you in email, think about what kinds of communication belong there, and how you can divert the other communication to more efficient “compartments.” If all of your conversations about Project X are in Slack Team X, you don’t have to create a rule, and your email triaging is significantly reduced.

By properly compartmentalizing, you can not only improve the clarity and focus of collaboration in your project, but you also make the truly critical one-off emails in your inbox easier to find.

* BTW, there are plenty of ways for people to either unwittingly or subversively get around your email handling rules.