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8 Ways Not to Manage Your Email (and 5 and a Half Tactics that Work)

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In 1635, England’s Charles I expanded the island’s mail delivery service to the public — with postage paid by the recipient and based on the weight of the letter. If Great Aunt Henrietta wrote you a 10-page letter asking why you weren’t married yet, throughout most of the country you paid for the privilege of receiving it. It wasn’t until 1840 that the Royal Mail switched to a system in which postage was prepaid by the sender.

I think of this fact often when checking my email. I hope it doesn’t take 200 years to figure out how to make the initiators of these messages — rather than their beleaguered recipients — bear the burden of their sending. But until then, recipients have to manage. And often, we have to manage without the kind of administrative support 20th century executives relied on.

Two years ago, frustrated by this state of affairs, I published a cri de coeur on this site railing against the lamentable state of inboxes everywhere. Making my despair public had an unanticipated side effect: I started hearing from people who’d discovered tips and tools that could help. In the months since, I’ve experimented with a range of different options. There were several oft-recommended tactics that failed utterly for me, and a few that did work. The way I see it, we’ve got to band together to defeat the email Hydra, so here’s what worked for me and what didn’t. Notably, most of the successful tactics had less to do with email and more to do with general time management — although there were two important exceptions.

What worked:

  • I stopped seeing it as separate from my “real work.” In the information economy, email is real work. So I made a conscious decision to stop looking at email as something that took me away from important work and start viewing it as part of building  relationships — something that’s really important to me. Once I made this mindset shift, it was easier to make time for email.
  • I stopped using email to manage my to-do list. This post describes my pre-conversion life pretty well: I’d leave important messages marked as unread to remember to come back to them later (but then they’d get buried by new messages fairly quickly) and I’d email to-do lists to myself. Having tried paper to-do lists and several different task tracking apps (including one that transformed my list into a quest — though I never advanced beyond “Junior Ent Sapling”) I’ve finally settled on Trello, which is super-simple and has a fantastic app/desktop integration.
  • I stopped allowing days of back-to-back meetings. I used to let my calendar get filled up with meetings; at the end of the day, I would return to an inbox filled with hundreds of unread messages and a sinking feeling in my heart. I tried to fight back by blocking out large chunks of my calendar a couple of times a week, but my coworkers, seeing a 2-hour “meeting” in my calendar would know it was a fake and book me anyway. Now I book 30-min or 1-hour meetings at random times throughout my week, so that I always have about two hours “free” per day. (Try to catch me now, suckers!)
  • Two weeks before I go on vacation, I put the dates I’ll be away in my email signature. This is a much better way of giving colleagues a heads-up than a mass email message, which few people will read or remember, and it lets me deal with last-minute requests before I leave so that I can fully disconnect while I’m away. When I return, I steadfastly avoid meetings for a couple of days so that I can catch up. Unless you are a sitting head of state, I don’t see why you should have to check your work email from a vineyard in Tuscany, or the back of a burro in the mountains of Patagonia, or sitting by grandma’s Christmas tree. I realize that some people’s bosses are unreasonable about this; part of why I work at HBR is to convince these bosses that they are wrong.
  • I stopped expecting a human brain to solve a problem created by technology. I used to feel bad — really bad — when important emails would get lost in the impenetrable wall of unimportant near-spam that took over my inbox every day. (No, I do not think HBR should publish an article on the start-up selling a toilet seat for cats, but thank you, Ms. Publicist, for suggesting it — three times.) I finally accepted that this was a technology problem that required a technological solution. After looking into a few options, I installed SaneBox, a filtering system that uses an algorithm to decide which emails are the most important. Those are shunted into your inbox, which suddenly looks much less cluttered; the rest go into a “SaneLater” folder. I go through the SaneLater folder every other day to make sure nothing crucial is languishing in there. I also started using Unroll.me, which combines your newsletter subscriptions into one daily digest and unsubscribes you from the lists you don’t want to be on.
  • I use my smartphone much more. (This is the “half” tactic.) While most of the published advice I’ve read on managing email urged me to avoid relying on my phone, I’ve found that it helps me craft quicker responses that get right to the point (in case you haven’t noticed already, I have a tendency towards the verbose). And since it says “sent from my phone” in the signature, people aren’t as likely to be offended by brevity.

What didn’t work:

  • Checking email at certain times of the day only. This frequently suggestedtactic has never worked for me. When I’ve tried, I end up reading and answering email straight through until my next appointed “check-in” time; or I get left out of important online conversations happening among my colleagues between my check-in times; or I miss timely messages.
  • Strategic use of out-of-office messages. I’ve tried putting up an auto-response if there’s a day I really am booked in meetings or when I’m simply buried in deadlines and trying to get manuscripts out the door; my recipients found this defensive. For longer breaks, I’ve also tried the trick of saying, “Please re-send your message when I am back in the office on such-and-such date,” another widely cited tactic. Recipients found that arrogant.
  • Keeping emails incredibly short. It’s one thing to be concise; it’s another to omit both salutation and sign-off — and punctuation. As an editor, sending these sorts of emails (“sounds great thanks”) bothered me on a personal level. Did I really not have time to say “Hello, Professor Fitz-Herbert” or insert a comma? Really? These super-brief emails made me feel icky. I also think they made me sound like kind of an asshole.
  • Aiming for Inbox Zero. I think we will look back on the brief craze for Inbox Zero the way we now look back at the 80s aerobics craze: evidence of a mad and ultimately warping desire for perfection. Inboxes are not meant to be at zero any more than women’s upper thighs are meant to look like aluminum tubes. I now aim to keep the unread messages in my inbox to the double-digits. When things start ballooning up, I sigh, get into to work a little earlier, and hammer away at them until they’re back down to size — the same way I reluctantly (but temporarily) switch from pastrami to arugula when my favorite jeans feel tight.
  • Following the “only handle it once,” rule. This is a really difficult one for most knowledge workers, not only editors. Thinking takes time. Sometimes even answering a simple yes-or-no question means asking for other people’s input, doing background reading, or conducting a bit of research. I can usually make those judgment calls fairly efficiently — or else I wouldn’t be good at my job — but I can’t do it obeying the “OHIO” rule.
  • Setting up elaborate folder systems. How can a person who barely has time to read her email possibly have time to sort it? That’s what the search box is for.
  • Asking other people to change their behavior. I did try asking people to put key information in the subject line, use the Red Exclamation Point of Doom if — and only if — it was truly an urgent message, or to send me one email with all of their questions rather than five short emails each with a different query. Despite the efforts of a few (which I appreciated!), by and large this was a predictably Quixotic quest.
  • Complaining. Treating email like the enemy made important people hesitant to email me; I’d be left out of important conversations because, “Sarah’s always so busy.” Instead of being able to dip in and out of the discussion based on what I thought was important, people started turning off the spigot. I was not a fan of that, as it turned out.

My reformation is far from complete. Messages still slip through the cracks. A bad flu messes up my entire carefully constructed system. And I still get irritated when people send a second email “just to make sure you got my email!” — especially if 24 hours haven’t elapsed since the first message. (With tools likeSignals, no one needs to ask that question anymore.) But since becoming more disciplined about managing my email, I find I get fewer of those messages.

There is an old saying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: to drink from a firehose, you need to use a straw. If email is the firehose, apps like Signals, Trello, SaneBox, and others are the straws. And modern missivists can at least be thankful that, unlike the letter-writers of 17th century Britain, we have keyboard shortcuts for “copy” and “paste.”

source:https://hbr.org/2014/04/8-ways-not-to-manage-your-email-and-5-tactics-that-work/

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GOOGLE HOME HUB SAYS NO TO SMART-HOME CAMERAS IN YOUR BEDROOM

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The new Google Home Hub sports a 7-inch touchscreen, a fabric-encased full-range speaker, a light sensor and two far-field microphones. But even more interesting is a hardware feature it doesn’t have.

The $149 device has no camera, so you can’t use it for video calls or taking photos.

While that omission at first blush may not seem like a big deal, it raises a handful of thorny questions about how many cameras and microphones people want to have in their connected homes and how much they trust giant tech companies to protect their data and privacy in their most intimate spaces.

The Home Hub, which Google introduced at its Made By Google product launch event Tuesday in Manhattan, is a mashup of a smart speaker and a tablet that’s often called a smart display. It uses the voice-powered Google Assistant to let you play YouTube videos, check your home security camera feeds and control connected smart-home devices like lights.

The device will go up against a growing list of competing smart displays, including the Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo Show and Echo Spot, the new Facebook Portal, and the Google Assistant-powered JBL Link View and Lenovo Smart Display. All five of those devices include cameras for video chats.

The Hub comes out at time when tech companies are facing greater scrutiny for how they manage users’ data and how much of that information they keep. Just this week, Google shut down its unpopular Google+ social network after the company was forced to disclose a bug that put users’ data at risk. Earlier this year, Facebook sustained a torrent of criticism after the data of millions of people landed in the hands of consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which exploited the information for targeted election ads.

Simultaneously, many of these same companies are asking consumers to add more and more cameras, mics and sensors to control their homes.

So far, smart-home customers haven’t raised persistent concerns about these devices tracking them, instead focusing more on the convenience they can offer. But that dynamic has the potential to quickly change if there’s ever a major breach related to the audio, video and shopping data these electronics can track.

When the Hub comes out on Oct. 22, consumers will get to decide whether they want to make the Hub a bigger success than its many rival camera-toting smart displays. Whether they side more with the privacy of having no camera or the convenience of video features may signal what direction smart home technology will go in the future.

“It’s kind of less is more,” said GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart, who attended the Google event. “They’re omitting a piece of hardware that costs money and does raise some privacy implications.”

Google’s view on going camera-free

While Amazon in particular has pushed full-force into offering smart speakers with cameras, including those marketed for the bedroom, Google took a decidedly different approach with the Hub.

“For us, in general, it’s not about one product or another, just the word camera — hey, put a camera in your bedroom,” Mark Spates, Google’s product lead for smart speakers, said at Tuesday’s event. “It’s a comfort thing. For us, we wanted to make sure that you could use this anywhere in the home.”

Google wanted to give customers that option after finding that people put the Google Home Mini — its most popular smart speaker — in hallways, washrooms, bedrooms and everywhere else in their homes, he said. Looking to build on the Mini’s success and avoid limiting where the Hub can go, he said, Google opted to leave out a camera.

Diya Jolly, Google’s vice president of product management, added that the company saw an opportunity to offer a different kind of smart display, after several competing devices already offered a camera. She said Google was willing to explore adding a camera to a later version, but “we wanted to see how consumers reacted and how they liked” the new Hub.

“We wanted to give users a choice of not having a camera,” she said. “There are many other devices out there that have a camera, but none that doesn’t have a camera.”

amazon-echo-spot
A marketing picture from Amazon of the Echo Spot as a bedroom nightstand clock.Amazon

In stark contrast with the Hub, competing smart displays are heavily promoting their video capabilities. The new Facebook Portal was created especially for Facebook Messenger video calls, and Amazon’s Echo Show and Spot have been marketed for their video call functions. Amazon even included a “drop in” feature that lets people connect automatically with a Show or Spot if they’ve been approved to do so by the device’s owner.

Amazon also created another product called the Echo Look that’s marketed for your bedroom or closet. It uses a camera to take pictures of your outfit choices to give you AI-powered fashion advice. The Spot, too, is marketed as a replacement for your bedroom nightstand clock.

Privacy in focus

In a nod to privacy concerns, Facebook, JBL and Lenovo offer physical privacy shutters for their smart displays’ cameras. Amazon doesn’t, instead offering a button to disable the mic and camera on the Show and Spot.

“Customers have made millions of video calls this year alone, and they tell us that they love the ability to drop in from room to room within their homes or take a photo on our devices, which is why we believe the camera is important,” an Amazon spokeswoman said.

“We also built these devices with privacy in mind from the beginning,” she added, mentioning that when you press the microphone/camera off button, it cuts off power to both pieces of hardware. Also, a red light on the device is used to reinforce the fact that the mic and camera are off. “We will continue to learn from our customers and adapt our products to best meet their needs.”

facebook-portal-plus-messenger-chat-2306
Say hi to the Facebook Portal.James Martin/CNET

Following Facebook’s privacy blunders, the company took pains to emphasize the Portal’s privacy features, including the ability to turn off the mic and camera with one tap and the use of a passcode to unlock the screen.

Both Amazon and Facebook said they don’t record, store or listen to your calls through Facebook’s Portal or Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices.

JBL and Lenovo didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

By leaving out a camera Google avoids the privacy concerns raised by Amazon’s rival products and prevents a potentially messy video breach from ever happening. Amazon faced criticism for the Look, with one writer for Forbes suggesting its camera may someday be able to identify skin cancer or depression. Amazon strongly denied these claims.

“Amazon is trying something completely different,” Greengart said. “I don’t think it hurts Google to omit it, and for people that do want a camera, there are those options from Amazon and Google’s partners.”

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MICROSOFT HAS KILLED MINECRAFT FOR APPLE TV

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Microsoft is no longer supporting the Apple TV version of Minecraft. The app has has been pulled from the App Store, and an in-game message notes that it won’t receive any further updates, though it’ll continue to be playable. Refunds will be issued for any purchases made up to 90 days before the announcement comes into effect. And it actually went into effect on September 24th, so it’s even more of an indictment of the state of Apple TV gaming that no-one really seemed to notice until this week.

Minecraft is one of the biggest games in history and has managed to find an audience on virtually every console, phone, and computer out there — including the iPhone, from which the Apple TV version was derived. But the Apple TV has been hampered as a games platform ever since Apple bungled the launch by unexpectedly requiring developers to support the Siri Remote. The company backtracked the following year, but the damage was done.

Apple hasn’t entirely given up on Apple TV gaming. Last year’s iPhone keynote saw Sky, the next game from Journey and Flower studio Thatgamecompany, shown off for the first time on the Apple TV 4K. But even that game is yet to see release, and it’s clear that Apple’s focus is elsewhere.

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UBER’S NEXT CONQUEST: YOUR DATA

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After replacing Travis Kalanick in August 2017, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is shifting the company’s focus. Though the company has always sought to become a world-class transportation platform, it has recently begun to describe itself as “Amazon for transportation” — an ambition which indicates the company is making a monopolistic data play.

Amazon has always been an inspiration for Uber’s leadership, but the form of that inspiration has shifted over the course of the company’s growth. Kalanick wanted to emulate Amazon’s strategy of pursuing market share and growth at the expense of profits — or, more accurately, with massive losses before using scale to reduce the marginal cost of expansion to turn a profit. Unfortunately for Kalanick, that strategy didn’t translate to Uber’s ride-hailing business.

Scale economies work for companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon because the digital nature of their operations allows growth at little marginal cost in many aspects of their businesses. This is why many of these digital companies have so few employees compared to traditional auto companies. However, as transportation expert Hubert Horan explained: “Drivers, vehicles and fuel account for 85% of urban car service costs,” making scale economies very difficult for Uber’s ride-hailing service to achieve even as it outsources the ownership and maintenance of vehicles to its drivers.

Uber’s leadership is inspired by Amazon’s platform and the power and dominance that has come with it.

Uber’s margin improvements have typically come from cutting driver pay, not scale economies, and Kalanick’s plan to reach profitability relied on further reducing the share of revenue going to drivers. In the last few years that Kalanick served as CEO, the company became focused not just on developing autonomous vehicles, but on winning the self-driving race. We now know that autonomous vehicles will not be able to replace drivers nearly to the degree Kalanick had hoped, nor on the accelerated timeline he was relying on. This necessitates a new plan for the company’s future.

We don’t know whether Kalanick was in the process of formulating a new strategy, but over the past few months Khosrowshahi’s vision has become increasingly clear. He wants to make Uber into the “Amazon for transportation.” This time, instead of taking the wrong lessons from Amazon on scale economies, Uber’s leadership is inspired by Amazon’s platform and the power and dominance that has come with it.

From Ride-Hailing to Transportation Platform

Though Uber’s ride-hailing service has always been the center of its business, Khosrowshahi’s plan shifts the focus to its app — or, rather, its platform. He’s no longer just talking about the ride-hailing business, but about existing food delivery and freight services along with it, new scooters and bike offerings from Lime, car rentals from Getaround, public transit ticketing through Masabi, and the prospect of flying cars. Basically, the more services available, the more people the platform can serve.

Uber’s approach to autonomous vehicles has also shifted. Rather than trying to win the race to develop self-driving tech, Khosrowshahi has said his ultimate goal is to have “access” to the technology. He opened the door for Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise to offer their autonomous vehicle services on Uber’s platform, and Ford AV CEO Sherif Marakby recently told the Vergecast that they’d be open to offering their autonomous service on the platform as well.

Khosrowshahi predicts the traditional ride-hailing service to be only 50 percent of its future business, as scooters and bikes cannibalize the short trips currently made in vehicles. It’s hard to imagine Kalanick making a similar statement, but that doesn’t mean Khosrowshahi’s ultimate goal is any less inspired by monopolistic ideals.

Uber Wants to Control Urban Transportation Data

Uber is a private company with plans to go public in 2019. It has yet to turn a profit. Khosrowshahi has encouraged investors to commit for the long haul, as his plans to diversifying the company’s transportation options will not deliver short-term profits. At the same time, his value proposition to investors has changed: Now, they have access to Amazon-like power exerted on urban transportation networks.

In his book on these new digital monopolies, Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek identifies the importance of network effects in increasing a platform’s value. For platforms, data is raw material that can “be extracted, refined, and used in a variety of ways. The more data one has, the more uses one can make of them.”

Uber will not only use data on its own services, but data from every third-party service offered through its platform.

Uber already has a large, global user base (and dataset). The expansion of transportation options on its platform — both its own and those of other companies — adds value for existing users while attracting new ones interested in getting around by anything other than a car. New modes of transport and a growing user base will produce more data, showing the company where more people are going and how additional transport modes are used. Uber will not only use data on its own services, but data from every third-party service offered through its platform. All of this data feeds a flywheel that will improve Uber’s service exponentially over time.

In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Khosrowshahi was asked why he was allowing other services onto Uber’s platform. He likened it to Amazon offering branded products while letting other businesses sell their products through the Amazon marketplace. He left out how Amazon uses its sales data to see which third-party products are selling well and make cheaper versions of its own, undercutting the original product and leaving its seller with no means of challenging Amazon. Will Uber eventually do the same to Lime’s scooters or Getaround’s car rentals? It’s not impossible to imagine.

Cities Need to Act Now

City governments around the globe have struggled to effectively regulate ride-hailing apps, but there’s been some recent progress. In August, New York City passed new regulations limiting the number of ride-hailing vehicles, at least for a 12-month period as it further studies the issue. It will also ensure that drivers are paid the minimum wage of $15 per hour with a bit extra to cover vehicle costs.

Another regulatory bright spot: bikes and scooters. Having learned their lesson from letting ride-hailing companies evade regulation, city governments were quick to develop policies for new micromobility services. Mayors make it known that they, not tech companies, had ultimate authority over what happened on city streets.

As Uber sets out to capture a significant chunk of urban transportation data with its new Amazon-inspired platform model, city governments need to make clear that data from activities occurring on the street is not proprietary information. This data belongs to the people as represented by their government. Uber should not have a better idea of how different transportation data modes are operating than governments themselves.

Under Khosrowshahi’s leadership, Uber’s tone has undoubtedly changed — probably for the better. Bikes and scooters will likely capture a significant portion of the ride-hailing service’s current users. However, Uber’s push to become the world’s dominant transportation platform is cause for concern. City officials must establish their right to transportation data. At the very least, they should build publicly owned alternatives that serve the interests of residents — not multinational companies.

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