Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of 'The Hamster Revolution', or why mastering email matters

You probably get and send at least 20 emails per work day, if so, this means you deal with over 5,000 emails per year, and if you're like me, you likely get much more emails than this. That's why it matters, and maybe even crucial, to take the time to enhance the methods you use to deal with email. And you know what? Most funny fact is that most of us never get any training on how to use and manage email. It is a wonderful and efficient way of communicating, but wrongly used, it can quickly become a burden and a source of dissatisfaction to you and your colleagues.

That's the main issue that "The Hamster Revolution: How to manage your email before it manages you" by Mike Song, Vicki Halsey and Tim Burress tries to hammer. In my opinion, the book fails to provide all the necessary ingredients to really improve how you manage emails, but it doesn't mean this book is useless or the topic isn't an important one, on the contrary. Despite my seemingly harsh critic, there are still very good concepts and suggestions in the book. The authors claim you can save weeks of your precious professional time every year by integrating their strategies into your workflow.

** The first strategy put forward by the book focuses on email quantity. In short, before sending an email, you have to answer a few questions related to whether an email is really needed (e.g. timely, relevant and complete), appropriate and targeted (carefully selecting recipients).

** The second strategy revolves around email quality. In short, subjects must be insightful and revealing, the body must clearly provide minimal background information and a summary of required actions, etc.

** The third strategy is about teaching and influencing your entourage to themselves send you better emails (quantity and quality).

** The fourth strategy is central to the book, and also its weakest part. This last strategy focuses on email organization and management. The authors claim their proposed COTA categorization scheme (COTA = Clients, Outputs, Team and Admin) is the one size fits all solution, while I believe it's actually one size fits none!

They clearly attempt to provide a solution tied to a single email software setup (namely MS Outlook), while not discussing the severe limitations of this software solution. Because of this, the powerfulness of some email software capabilities are not addressed at all, such as:
  • Instant intelligent email search results, such as provided by Spotlight
  • Smart folders (aka Saved search folders)
  • Email tags (aka labels), built in Gmail for example
Of course, you might end up not using smart folders or tags, but they may also become central to your preferred way of categorizing emails.

They oversee or ignore several elements of email management, providing little (in the annex) to no discussion on important issues such as:
  • Managing incoming emails and the inbox, classification of emails and items with required actions associated to it
  • Displaying emails as threads
  • Deleting emails, what to keep and what to delete (including in the sent mail folder)
  • IMAP vs POP3 email protocols: the main differences and why you should care which one you're using
  • Backing up emails
  • Plain text emails vs rich html emails
  • Addressbook: synchronization, smart groups, LDAP, tags, etc

I can't recommend the book because of the too many shortcomings, but this does not mean the topic isn't of major interest to our daily work, on the contrary! On the positive side, the book is short, only 106-pages and pleasant to read.

I don't think this book will significantly modify my own email workflow - it's already rather elaborate and I'm revisiting it regularly. Of course, I could dare claim that my email problems lie with my colleagues and relatives, not within my own way of doing things! ;-)

Related to the topic, you can read my previous review of 'Getting Things Done' and mention of 'Keeping Found Things Found'.