I Love the Smell of Outlook in the Morning

My workplace (actually two of them) used to be in the middle of a large landscape, and when I was walking to my desk and saw colleagues reading and writing emails in the morning, I used to smile, take a large breath through my nose, and whisper “I love the smell of Outlook in the morning!”

Most of the people around me do a lot of things that I’ll never understand - most probably this feeling is mutual -, and reading emails in the morning is one of them. I saw a guy once who had been sitting in his coat for 3 hours reading emails, because he didn’t have a chance to take it off. What interesting or important things could he have been reading about that made him sit there for that long?

I can think of two possible explanations. First, nowadays working times are flexible, therefore everyone can start and end their work at different times on a given day. When they come in in the morning they are curious about what others did while they were away. Second, they usually save some discussions from yesterday and plan to read them while having coffee in the morning. Both sound reasonable, but a mail application is like the television: we cannot really turn it off after we turned it on, because there is always something new to watch, which is in our case reading and writing emails.

Every new email is like a new show or a new channel on “television”: it is either interesting, thought provoking, entertaining or frustrating, so we keep listening to it. When it becomes too much, we simply let it go into the background, but when we hear something worth listening to, we immediately turn our attention to it. I’m pretty sure that you’ve also reached a point when you’ve had enough and closed your email application, but when the “new email” notification popped up, you opened it immediately. No matter what, the email application is there, and it has our divided attention, which makes people say: “I haven’t done anything valuable today, because I was reading and answering emails the whole day.” There was a time when we called this phenomenon “Outlook Driven Development”.

Banning the television from our home is hard but achievable, however, we are certain that we cannot ignore our emails. I was interested in this topic, so I did a personal experiment, and stopped reading and writing emails. At that time the size of my team was rather small (below 7), and I managed to do my job and be a part of the team, while the number of incoming emails reduced drastically: the others learned that there was no use sending me stuff, because I won’t read and answer them anyway. The other interesting result was that this didn’t cause any changes in the personal or phone based interruptions. This meant that most of the emails I was reading and answering were never that important.

I was curious if this could work for somebody else as well, so I asked a friend to join the experiment. He was a member of a larger team and several other groups. As far as I remember, he managed to do this for a day or so. It wasn’t a complete failure though. We concluded that ignoring emails won’t work when one is a member of a larger team and/or several groups, because he will be left out from the information flow. In theory the solution would be for everybody to stop reading and sending emails at the very same time, which sounds a bit futuristic.

We didn’t give up and tried out a different approach. The “emails first, work second” order was a habit, and as such, it was changeable. We agreed that we would change the order, and we wouldn’t open our email application until we did something valuable that day. The first day was interesting for both of us: I needed about 7 hours to finish what I had planned, and my friend reported similar results. The next day was like before, but after several attempts we somehow managed to change our email reading and writing habits: we try to do something valuable during the morning, and when it is done, we open our email application. It is not perfect yet, but we can achieve something valuable during the day, and we can be an effective member of the email readers’ and writers’ society.

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