Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Texting

I currently have to deal with five hours or so of email a day and each day is packed with meetings, many as short as 15 minutes and 1 hour meetings being booked only in extraordinary circumstances. I have a list of 100 or so names of people that I've promised to meet, many who are very angry because we haven't been able to even book a meeting on my calendar.

I aggressively turn down all kinds of request and am aggressively resigning from boards and other obligations, but each day, I receive a steady flow of meeting requests that I just can't turn down.

I've chosen this path and I'm not complaining about the fact that I'm busy.

My concern at the moment is that the urgency and the rate of inbound email requires that in addition to the 2-3 hours of email in the morning and the 2-3 hours of email in the evening, I must diligently triage email during the day. Right now, depending on how much of my attention is required in a meeting, I keep an eye on my email and direct partial attention to my device and not my meeting. As someone who (ironically) co-teaches a class on awareness, I realize that this is both rude and a very poor way to have an effective meeting. People who know me well have gotten used to it, but for many people, it's disconcerting and disappointing.

I've thought about what I can do about this. The obvious answer is to try to check email between meetings, but that would mean that I would have to reduce the number of meetings since my meetings are so short. I could also ignore more of my email. I'm already unable to respond to many important email requests and reducing my responsiveness in email would also cause harm. At some level this is just a matter of being completely overcommitted, and I am doing my best to try to deal with that, but I was wondering if there might be some clever way to deal with the "partial attention during meetings" problem.

One idea that I had was to schedule several hours of email time during the day interspersed with "no devices / full attention" meeting times. When someone signed up for a meeting, we would ask if they needed full attention and if so, they would end up in the "full attention slot" queue or get booked a month or so out when my next "full attention slot" was available. On the other hand, if all they wanted was for me to be available to provide opinions or make decisions as part of a broader meeting or if the person didn't mind my partial attention during meetings, we could book the meeting in a "partial attention" slot which could be scheduled sooner. I would use un-booked partial attention slots to catch up on email if no one wanted such a slot.

This feels a bit too clever by half and maybe difficult to communicate to a person not familiar with my problem.

The other idea that I had was just to ask at the beginning of a meeting, "do you want this to be a laptops closed meeting or do you mind if I keep my eye on urgent email and triage?" I'm not sure if everyone would ask for my full attention or if I'd have a selection bias where only people confident enough would ask for my full attention and that those people who really needed my attention but were too polite would end up with my partial attention.

Lastly, I could just be a bit more mindful in the meetings and try to read the room better. I am generally pretty good at figuring out when the meeting requires my full attention, but as anyone who has seen someone trying to do this knows, one probably thinks they are doing this better than they actually are and in any case, it appears disrespectful to anyone who isn't used to people in this mode.

Any suggestions? Any thoughts on my crazy ideas? I know many of you will say, "You're just overcommitted. Just say 'no' to more stuff." OK. I will and I am, but I think I will still have some variant of this problem even if I'm just replying to earnest questions from students that I think deserve some sort of response.

18 Comments

Joi,
Having seen you in action, looks like you are pretty much in control and doing a pretty awesome job. As for the question at hand, it comes across a weighed knapsack problem with amount of unknowns. May be there might be a way to optimise some of the scheduling with some sort of ML/AI. It is very likely there are a set of problems which have similiar characterstics, which could get better results if it had acess to information. However that context switching might be resource intesive.

This reminds me of the problems courts have with scheduling.

Not giving a person in front of you your full attention is just not an option. Really, it is pointless. You are eventually going to end up making a big fool of yourself.

I suspect you need to move to a mostly written (or prerecorded video) process, where people bring their issue in writing in a concise format. It is important that they ask you exactly what they want you to do and why. I suspect that a lot of these people, even if the thing is of interest and merit, you can't really help beyond giving your moral support and encouragement. Maybe you can refer them to someone else who might be able to help and terminate the conversation at that point?

If you think you might be able to help you have a conference call of 10 minutes to tee things up. There might be specific help you need, or maybe there are a number of people you could meet with together on related topics. When you meet them for the first time I think you have to give them at least a 50 minute hour to get a sense of the thing, certainly 25 minutes.

If you are going at this rate you need to draw in people around you. Fortunately you now have the support of an institution.

I am a bit worried about the point of all these meetings for you. How can you turn meeting conversations into projects if you don't even have enough time for conversations? You are on a hiding to nothing unless you get this under control.

Perhaps less importantly you are wasting other people's time. What realistic likelihood is there that you will be able to meaningfully help more than one in 10 of these people looking to meet you? I mean, give them help or some response that they couldn't have gotten elsewhere?

I know you want to avoid having gatekeepers. And you are right. But to avoid this you need the written/prerecorded process and a strong 'support office'.

It is going to get very structured but I think you have to do that if you don't want to end up wasting a lot of not only your own time but other people's time too.

As one of your friends who knows you well and has gotten used to it, i have thoughts on this. Over the years I have developed "Joi hacks" that I employ depending on how important something is, I won't list them publicly lest everyone steals my special sauce, but my point on that is the people who know you and have gotten use to it still likely notice it and try to work around it as best they can, and if you gave people the choice between full or partial attention I think you'd have everyone clamoring for full attention and that would likely create even more headache for you.

I don't know if you remember how insane my email was circa 2005 in metblogs hayday, and I know it's nothing compared to yours, but I have 1000+ bloggers emailing me at all hours from all timezones every day and I could do nothing but answer email all day long and not make a dent. It wasn't manageable at all. I've by no means solved the problem, but I've made a few specific changes that I think helped out a lot, and maybe some variation of them might be helpful for you.

1. The biggest realization I had was that in efforts to be "accessible" I'd made myself the path of least resistance for solving all problems. For example, we had an internal wiki with all answers for most issues, but people would still just email me before consulting it. My replies would often just be a link to the wiki page, but I still had to spend the time to get the right link and email them back, and was distracted from whatever else I was doing. So I started telling people (via in person, autoresponders, public contact pages, etc..) that I would always take 48-72 hours to reply to any email - this wasn't entirely true - but what it did was tell anyone who needed an answer or a solution right now, that emailing me wasn't the best route for that. This wasn't immediately comfortable for everyone, but it did work and a huge chunk of the emails decreased. I started seeing an email from someone asking something, and then 2 hours later another email from them saying they'd figured it out and didn't need a reply any more. There's some individual tweaking that needs to happen, but if everyone knows they can always email you about anything and you'll get back to them right away, they always will. Making that option not the most attractive one helps.

2. My "inner circle" doesn't email me mostly, we SMS or slack or message some other way. By taking those very crucial "I never want to miss a contact from X" out of my inbox then I didn't have to worry about checking it all the time "just in cast." My assistant fits into that group, so if something urgent comes in it could be handled or I could be pinged if need be.

3. No email on my phone at all. This is kind of an extension of #2, but if everyone knows you can only deal with email when you are at a computer their expectations of your reply times change a bit. You have to change habits a bit, I often message myself details I need to know when afk, and it's a problem 1/10 times, but 9/10 times it's amazing.

4. I've had good experience with these next two things, but honestly I'm lax about maintaining them and so I don't fully benefit from them. Dif email accounts for known and unknown inbounds, and set email checking times.

5. What I do, that I find super helpful is never checking email first thing in the morning. I make a point of not checking email at all until X time. The big change here I found was when I don't check email in the morning I set the tone for the day, when I check email the second I wake up whatever plans I had get changed by something that comes in that I have to deal with unexpectedly.

Amusingly enough having a kid really forced some of this for me. They grow up so quick and you realize you missed something amazing because you were dealing with some bullshit you didn't really care about, and that makes it click in your head that you have to stop dealing with that bullshit. For me it did anyway.

Here's the thing, at the end of all this it's really about habits and choices, you can choose how you want things to play out or you can be constantly reacting to how others want them to play out. You can choose to be present when around people, but you have to change habits to make that happen. You can't be effective at all things at all times, they step on each other. So you have to decide where the priorities are and schedule accordingly, and email just can't be a priority all day long for anything else to matter.

Hope something in there was useful.

Meta-irony:
Rolled over this (Sunday) morning* and first thing I saw was an email forward from Joi about Ray Ozzie getting a comment posting error… on this post. ;)
* Phone is usually far from bed but sometimes rules lax… ah well.

maybe you should start playing WoW again, and go partial attention for *all* meetings.

Interesting essay.

If I am meeting with someone, and that person looks at the computer or phone to check mail while we are meeting, I immediately stop talking. I am not going to compete with what he or she is (by definition) finding more attention-worthy at that moment. If the other person keeps looking at the screen I say, "Let's talk another time, or when you're done."

The point of a face-to-face meeting is to deliver your attention to the person you are meeting with. If you're not able to do that, you shouldn't be setting aside the time for a meeting. (In my view.)

Many of the comments here offer sensible advice on triaging-down the meetings you schedule, so that they are only ones you find sufficiently *worthy* of your attention to devote it to the person who is present.

I surely can imagine your daily busy situation. Our human's attention has been getting a bottleneck in computing (from the viewpoint of computing!) ever since Dr. Herbert A. Simon in Carnegie Mellon mentioned in his paper in 1969.

Making two different "full attention" and "partial attention" sound interesting. Some other people may set "price" for meetings to reflect the value of your attention, but that would be more controversial. I personally think that you Joi Ito are one of the very rare person (as an innovator) who can start this kind of new stuff. Not all people in the society can start it.

By the way, when you visit my web, you know I'm researching human's attention in computing.

I have known you for far less than Sean has (hey Sean!), but as someone who has worked closely with you for 2 years and experienced/understands your modus operandi, I have gone from being "shocked at your sheer flow", to "surprised at the impropriety of partial attention", to "impressed at your ability to cope", and have modeled my own behavior after parts of yours to increase my throughput and productivity; I call this "learned ADHD", where attention is time sliced and distributed like Hadoop does but in a semi-serial kind of way, since the nature of human mind/subconscious isn't quite the same as the parallelisation that goes on in the multiple cores of a CPU.

I've alluded you at various times (in my own mind or to others) to a human router, a serendipity-sponge/squirter, and a multi-spectral "frontier-sensing" radar, all rolled up into one.

I think you're well on your way to being on the forefront (yay, again!) of the future of relationships AI; a sieve for the right sets of inflows for your filtering and action. It's on the action bits that your life model that needs the most upgrading, much less so on the flows and filters.

I agree with Antoin that the folks who want to speak to you effectively need a more structured approach when communicating with you, to avoid ambiguity. You probably need another blog post to guide that group. You can't and don't need to please everyone anyway. The best support team that won't ever become gatekeepers would be a form of "Joi AI" that people wouldn't get upset at, but I think we're still a few years away from that, unless LinkedIn has something up their sleeves.

Some ideas I came up with after failing to return to sleep after waking up to help the missus with our third child:

1) Slow down by 30% (because 80/20 is so passé), and make the world slow down with you. The real important stuff you prioritise for will matter more, and the other stuff that finds its way to you will prioritise itself for you.

2) Build/train up a trusted group of inner circle that you know will NEVER gate keep and abuse that trust, and subject yourself to them slowing you down by 30%, with you exercising the veto.

3) Schedule quiet time in your day of 15-30 mins and STICK to it; no emails or messages, just a good-enough time window to review the triaging/action you did in this past immediate time bloc, and take a "helicopter" review of more longer-lasting items.

4) Encourage people to tag/title their email subject to you with FYI, Opinion, Decision, Intro/Connect, Explore

5) Publish your 3-month objectives and desired outcomes to attract the right self-triaging from your network; sort of like a quarterly personal report akin to a public company.

6) Do (or side-jack an event you attend regularly) an annual Joi conference on hyper-connectedness and mindfulness in the age of the Internet and use it as an excuse to party, mix music, reconnect!

A few reactions:
- Try to have as many short meetings as possible, those that you need to focus, listen and think. No devices, no distractions
- I think it is ok to check email with one eye during long meetings
- Have someone who works really close with you, read and respond emails that have to do with logistics and simple interactions (coordinate a future activity, respond if you can or can not do something like accept an invitation, ...). This could reduce the volumen of emails to read/answer by 30%
- Block two periods of the day (ideally, first thing in the morning), and end of the day, to read/answer/write emails.

From Ray Ozzie. Blog comments ate his original comment:

Been there. Except that I refused to do the partial attention thing, so the goal was to reclaim sleep.

I first had someone on my staff write a tool that watched my habits, and studied the analytics.

From that, I ended up developing a set of protocols that over the course of months dramatically changed the game.

0. Every day ends very close to inbox zero, even with 250+ non-spam non-commerce non-list emails. Email is a process, and you have no option but to design a process so that input and output flow are balanced.

1. I filtered email and never even looked at any email that didn't have me in the "to" or "bcc" list, by name. No groups, and no cc's.

2. I made widely known that if I ended an email in "NRR", it meant "no reply requested". That is shorthand for "resist the urge to press Reply". One goal of triaging should be to shut down email-based conversations, and to make email far more of a "transaction processing" medium.

3. I had two people who had full access to my inbox and whose job it was to read every message. My EA dealt exclusively with all calendaring and scheduling and meeting requests, and got them out of my inbox before I looked. My chief of staff was my primary interface to everyone internal and external other than my peers or my boss. No secrets among us. Complete trust. Both had my back to maintain context. Both made sure that I saw what I needed to see, by watching what I saw (marked Read), when I saw it, and what I chose to reply to. If you want to be really good at high velocity email process, you need to become multicore.

4. The email analytics tool taught me something about myself that blew me away. Before the tool I thought I spent 80% of my time reading, and 20% replying. What I learned is that I spent 15% reading; I am really really good at skimming and disposing of stuff. Instead, 85% of my time was spent replying. Furthermore, that time was spent replying to a tiny, tiny fraction of messages and people. What I found was that it was a fundamental personality trait to be a) too helpful (see .), b) too nuanced/detailed, and c) too unnecessarily polite in the form of replies. What I became much better at over the years was I) becoming far far more transactional in my tone and substance, and II) I got much better at using my voice or a 5m F2F or my chief of staff to deliver things with nuance, instead of using and editing text. Counter-intuitively, "pls drop by for 5m thx" is an amazingly powerful email transaction.

Joi,

Call Esther Dyson and ask if you can borrow her email system.

She creates a prio based upon the # of $$'s people are willing to pay to be read by her.
If she replies, you will get a refund, if not you loose the money.

It works, she wrote once.

Best,
Bart

I'd say empower people to take more decisions on their own. And correct the heading now and then if you find the time to do so. Seeing something half the way running is probably faster to check and provide feedback on.

And maybe they will surprise you!

Hi Joi,
Some options:
- try to know which types of emails are the ones that have increased the most. Maybe it is not an "email problem" but a particular problem with some senders / issues
- analyze how much time do you want to spend to all types of email as a whole
- answer emails at noon, and then late afternoon, so you allow for urgent matters to appear during your day and not feel as if you desperately need to answer them by night when you have already spent 3 hours in the morning in your email
- create folder with important senders to you
- use and distribute joi+something@media.mit.edu with any particular senders to automatically organize them in folders by "something". These emails will fall in your same inbox but you will be able to organize them more easily
- hire an assistant for minor issues could also help

Best
Sebas

A bunch of the stuff that Ray said, (you could definitely take advantage of some of your lab's analytics wizardry), but one combination stands out -- if you're cautious about sharing access to your inbox to assistants, see if you can do a simple training on whether you consider an email shareable with them or not. My guess is that this is an easier thing to train for than others (particular people, particular language), and also /private/ email is something that you'd want to prioritise or act on, anyway.

Larry Lessig used to occasionally declare inbox bankruptcy, which I've done a couple of times, to surprisingly little disaster.

Your last paragraph says everything: you speel out the answer, and deny it in the same breath.

You are overcommitted. Say 'no' to more stuff.

(I removed 'just', because it's hard.)

- Obvious to you: You cannot keep doing this. The volume will not decrease of its own accord over time.
- Perhaps less obvious: Those emails are not _obligations_ popping into existence. Not even an obligation to respond. This is a terrible use of your superpowers, and of your time.

There really is an infinite supply of worthy things to respond to, including those earnest student questions deserving a response. They will, like gas, expand to fill the available space. Limiting the size of the container is up to you.

People will always love to ask for more You, because you're illuminating for them. If you could correspond with and meet with people in 20 parallel time dimensions, concurrently, there would be enough people asking, it would be illuminating for all 20x of them. And your Inbox would just be 20x as full.

On the other hand, if you completely ignore most of the queries wafted in your direction, they will just float on other winds, to other destinations, and everyone will be just fine. Including you.

So: this is about constraints, and their unexpected blessings. The constraint opens the door, it doesn't close the door. Embrace the constraint, learn from it. Set severe constraints on email time.

Now you _could_ try to come at it a quality angle: setting an even higher quality threshold for the queries you respond to. But remember, the supply is infinite, so that method cannot succeed. Quantity first. Quality will follow naturally.

I honestly fear that any of us doing the high-functioning ADHD routine of infinite-input-rapid-high-volume-processing are going to see an unexpected sudden drop off in the "high functioning" attribute, one day. So: more sleep too. And less email. If that means deleting half of your daily email, unread, for a while, so be it.

Here endeth the lesson. Do as I say not as I do. And good luck!

TL;DR: You have reached the absolute limit of optimising by maximising what you do. The next optimisation is to limit the time you spend doing it.

P.S. Everyone: stop sending email to Joi. That's not an invitation to switch to & saturate his other input channels, either!

1. Assign exclusive time for family. No phone, no mail at mealtimes and conversations with family. Blink and one day they may not be there. Don't reget. Live for today.
2. Regularly delete your Inbox. If it's important they will get back to you.

Sounds like someone really thinks highly of themselves. Put yourself in the other shoe, how would you want someone at your meeting who is a distraction and not paying full attention?

This is the same as saying "I am so important that the best you can hope for is only my partial attention, or wait till next month" My response would be, we really don't need your full attention anymore either.

Do you have a PA or assistant? Give them access to your mail and control of your diary.

Do you have people who report to you? Assign more authority to them than you do currently, and hand over the related contacts.

Do you believe you are the only person who can resolve issue x,y or z? It's unlikely to be true, but behaving like it is is almost certainly disrupting the work of those around you.

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