Sunday, 13 December 2009

Submission done, Backlog & Inbox Zero struggle - roll on Christmas break

I finally got a submission posted for consideration for the STC magazine.

A few weeks ago I thought this was going to be easy - I had two articles planned for submission (one serious and one tongue-in-cheek) but then a combination of illness, kids-party-planning-turning-into-military-operation, workload and November weather-and-light-deficiency malaise got in the way.

So, what I'd thought of (but tellingly hadn't planned for...) as two articles being ready for a peer review turned into one article being a last-minute dash without any peer review. Yes, the "fault" pickings are likely to be high - lots of low hanging fruit on the bug tree!

Reflecting on it reminded me of my own failings when it comes to DIY (home decorating) estimates! Typically, when a re-decoration activity is starting there is always some unseen element - which might mean an additional trip to the shop, attic or drawing-board to work out how to solve the problem. (Think wallpaper stripping which contains multiple layers and the bottom layer is painted with a waterproof paint - making even a steamer much less effective...) So a 1 day job easily turns into 2-3 days.

Luckily, I don't always get unexpected derailments to my test-related estimations. They occur and it's just a case of working through them.

But this also started me thinking about backlogs - typically email inbox and rss reader backlogs.

Information Overload and the Holy Grail of "Inbox Zero"
I think the struggle towards "inbox zero" (the struggle to manage your email or rss reader inbox) is an interesting one. It's like some type of holy grail that is almost impossible to achieve. I just read of Phil's struggle to get through a backlog - this is something I can relate to.

Reading Jagannath's summary of Huxley's vs Orwell's view of too much vs too little information gives an interesting perspective to the information overload conundrum.

These two articles reminded me of an article I'd read in the HBR a while back (I think access to it is limited) about information overload. Some tips there were actually to delegate "information responsibility" - so you rely on a circle/group of colleagues/friends to disseminate & digest the information - this is something I implicitly do.

Follow-up question: Do you read email in the bathroom?

Putting "inbox zero" into context though - should you try to achieve it? I'm a little bit on the "lean-culture" part of the discussion here. Delaying the decision (to read or work on the backlog in this case) can sometimes actually reveal more information to make the decision better.

What? Delaying reading something can help decide if you should read something - how can that work? Well, there's a couple of tips below, but in essence it means sometimes you can glean some information via summary, heading, sender, receiver, etc, etc and use that to prioritise when/what to read.

From an rss perspective this might mean I'll read at least the first couple of posts from a first-time-poster as I'm inquisitive (and an inquisitive tester) and it sometimes takes time to focus for both the writer and reader. But it might also mean that I'm just as likely to read (or decide to not read) "big" names as well as "little" names...

How do I work with such backlogs?
#1. I mentioned that I implicitly delegate information digestion above. What does that mean? This means that I don't automatically jump into email debates/threads. I'm not interested in being the first to reply to a topic - unless it's only addressed to me! In my work environment this might mean several people are on the TO: line - and I'm not always at my desk monitoring email. This can result in the question has already been answered before I've even read the mail. Cool! If that reduces my need to spend time answering that's great in my book.

#2. Even if I'm at my desk I sometimes conciously decide to ignore email, twitter or rss updates. I leave that for "email, twitter or rss update"-checking time. This is usually the case if I need to get focussed on a particular piece of work.

#3. If they're work related and I've been offline for a while (holiday for example) then I will just take the latest mails in the threads and see if there's something I need to act on - I aid this by colour-coding auto-formatting emails depending on whether I'm on the TO or CC line (I even have different colours depending if I'm the only one on the TO line or whether I'm there as part of a distribution list or even whether the mail is from certain managers). This helps me to decide which emails to look at first.

This might lead to me replying or asking a question if a response is still needed (typically if it's gone over say 2 weeks.) If anything falls beyond this bracket then I'll probably just mark it as "read" - this helps me reset my baseline for items I should act upon...

Any other tips for "inbox zero" out there?

Now, talking about backlogs I have a carnival waiting... Oh, I'm looking forward to the Christmas break - and the inevitable inbox backlog when I go back online afterwards :-) Bubbly or cocoa? Mmmm...

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