Emails and IMs and Feeds—Oh, My!

A little while ago, I read a column in The Wall Street Journal titled "Hoarders vs. Deleters: How You Handle Your Email Inbox Says a Lot About You." Essentially, it's like what your mother used to tell you: "Disorder on your desk indicates disorder in your life." (My personal belief system is more along the lines of "a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind.") The columnist went on to describe "hoarders" who have 1,000 email messages in their inbox and are virtually paralyzed with guilt.

I can relate. I recently moved, and I have so many boxes to unpack that I've decided to let them sit there until I really need to find my stapler, those dressy black shoes, or that extra-large stock pot. The professional office organizers of the world may despair, but it's the only way I can tackle an otherwise daunting job.

This got me thinking about how we handle the deluge of information that comes at us each and every day. Between emails—both individual and cover-your-behind-type cc's to 30 people—RSS feeds, your 15 favorite blogs, IMs, and even (heaven help us) print newspapers and magazines, it's unrealistic to hope to give every item of interest the attention it deserves. No, I do not believe it is possible to read email effectively while also talking on the phone and IMing a friend on the side. Each activity gets one-third of the attention it deserves; our brains can't truly multitask.

I got to thinking about what types of information I most easily absorb and act on. Sadly, I am of the Baby Boomer generation, so for me instant messaging is just as disruptive as a phone call or the constantly pinging email (yes, yes, I know I have mail!). I find that I often have to turn into a virtual Luddite in order to get anything done. I've noticed that many of my clients do the same thing; we talk asynchronously via email, and they want distilled, concise research results, in the form of answers rather than just information. I have a much greater incentive to make sure I am entirely clear on the scope and depth of the project before I begin, because I know that my client may be, um, cocooning later: ignoring phone, chat, and email. The challenge, of course, is that I'm often distracted when my client calls me—in the middle of slogging through my email inbox, responding to a discussion-list post, checking to see when my next appointment is scheduled, and so on.

I have resorted to adding a cheat-sheet section to the form I use when I talk to clients at the beginning of each research project. Otherwise, I am likely to forget to go beyond "what do you want?" and get to "how can I make this whole process as frictionless as possible?" So I ask questions like the following: Would this information be most useful if I itemized the key issues in a PowerPoint presentation? Would you like me to call you when the project is done and give you a ten-minute briefing of what I found? Is there any internal information you need incorporated into the final report? Would you like the names of the experts I spoke with, so that your team members can follow up with any additional questions? Would you like to have an update in two months?

Each query is designed to help me find out how I can minimize the number of contacts I have to make with my clients and how I can deliver information in a format that will make it as easy as possible to integrate myself into the rest of their information environment. Yes, this added value takes time, and that's something that everyone has in short supply. However, I know that Google never asks its users how they would like to receive their search results, or whether they would like some kind of validity-checking or validation of websites, so the added value I offer sets me apart.

Similarly, I rarely recommend more than a few blogs to my clients. Knowing that the information is out there but not having the time and attention to keep up with it strikes me as similar to being offered oysters on the half shell despite having a shellfish allergy. Instead, I offer to provide a weekly summary of the most interesting blog entries for my customers, sort of like offering some tasty stuffed mushrooms instead of those oysters they can't even eat.

Everything we info pros can do to distinguish ourselves from the it's-all-on-the-web-for-free mentality and integrate ourselves and our services into the daily fabric of our clients helps ensure that we will have a devoted following of clients within our organizations.