Focusing Your Attention and Getting Things Done

Like many people, the ReplyToSome development team was inspired by David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”. Allen’s book is best known for its personal organization system, which introduces a distinctive terminology and system of lists, labels, and rules. But at the heart of the book is an insight about how we use our attention and memory. Allen argues that we stress ourselves out and undermine our effectiveness by keeping too much important information in our heads. What we need instead is a system that allows us to gain control and retain focus over our work – by using our minds to recognize patterns rather than hold information in memory.

The same emphasis on enabling people to gain focus and control over their work applies to individual emails. While email appears to be a simple and familiar technology, our inbox can quickly become what Allen calls “an amorphous blob of undoability.” Simply keeping up with our correspondence can swallow whole days. There are many reasons why dealing with email can be such a time-consuming and painful activity, but a major one is that we are only vaguely aware of the complex decisions emails require.

Many of these decisions concern our audience. The people on the email chain might include close colleagues, clients, adversaries, or tangentially related co-workers. We need to manage relationships with each, and to understand the history behind these relationships. Has the vendor you are copying signed a confidentiality agreement to protect your trade secrets. Will attorney-client privilege be waived if in-house counsel replies to an email chain copying an outside consultant? Has the division manager already been informed of an impending corporate restructuring? If not, are you the one to break it to her? Does bottom of the email conversation chain mention something offensive about Rich in accounting? And who is the “invisible audience” to the email – people who might receive the email by forward or review it on discovery?

Disentangling these relationships and histories, figuring out what to say to whom, and how to express it requires focused attention. As Allen observes, we can achieve this focus when play to our conscious mind’s strengths and not its weaknesses: our conscious minds are good at perceiving patterns but bad at remembering things.

Unfortunately, most email interfaces stress our memories without engaging our pattern recognition abilities. Say, for example, we’re copied on a complex email to about 40 people:

Who are these people? Our pattern recognition is good enough to kick in at this point. Even given the small type and need to scroll through a long list of names, we recognize that this is the working group on a project we have been part of.

Now we have to draft a reply. And it is here that conventional email interfaces burden our memory without building on our strengths. Is the group here the exact same as the group we’ve previously emailed or have people been added or taken off? Our memories likely aren’t photographic, so we have to search back through our email archives in order to find a past message. But even in this process of searching, we are in danger of losing the thread. We search through our past emails and get a phone call. Once we’re off the call, we momentarily forget what we were searching for and have to return to the original email. Finally, we find the email and have to do a painstaking comparison between the two lists. In the meantime, three more emails arrive in our inbox; we see them in the pop-up window on our screen. Back to the original email again.  We can’t quite line up the original email with the previous one so we have to do our best to compare the addresses, one by one, even though they’re in a different order. More interruptions. Where were we? It looks like someone is missing from the email, were they excluded on purpose? Should we copy them going forward? Ask someone else first? At this point, we’re likely holding a large, disordered list of names and addresses in our head, undermining our ability to focus on what really matters – drafting an appropriate response to the correct parties. Not much has been gotten done.

ReplyToSome is designed to reduce this strain on our working memories and instead present information about our audience in a way that helps us recognize patterns. We see our addresses organized and color coded so that we can spot patterns.

We can also use the blackline tool to compare the people on the email with a previous group, without leaving the email or searching through our archives.

ReplyToSome helps you apply focused attention to your emails, reducing anxiety, improving judgment, and minimizing errors. As David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” did for personal organization, ReplyToSome aims to give you a “mind like water” as you manage complex relationships.