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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Subject: Hereditary Defect

How unfortunate that when mail systems were being developed, they were modeled after physical business correspondence. I suspect that this is where a serious and persistent fault was introduced. In the age of physical correspondence, and under the assumption that mail and memo volume per user would be small, it was reasonable to assume that all letters would be read as they were received, in their entirety. A common courtesy was to relate the topic of the letter by including a "Subject" line at the top, oten used to route the letter or memo within departments to the correct recipient. Urgent letters, intended to take precedence, could be signaled by a different form of delivery (such as telegram), or colored paper. Given the high cost of duplication and transmission, paper mail was generally targeted with some accuracy to the intended recipients. What has been gorught forward from paper into email is rather antiquated, and doesn't anticipate dozens of communications per day. Moreover, some of the constraints on duplicating mail to a wider audience have been completely relaxed in the electronic world, thanks to distribution lists and the "CC" line, which levy no additional burden on the sender.

Today, for most information workers, email is the primary form of communication: much of the information we collect arrives via email. Within the storm of incoming messages are valuable items which are either reference materials for review and possible archiving, as well as items for action, all comingled with junk. As we attempt to winnow the wheat from the chaff, our first indicator of the "disposition" of the message - reference, actionable, junk - is the subject line. Most users of email have this primary field prominent in the list of all emails. Scanning through the emails, one reads the subject in an attempt to ascertain disposition, but often the content of the message body is required to make an accurate assessment.

Looking at the state of affairs, we're beset by information in historically high volumes, yet employ tools and behaviors instituted when frequency of correspondence was low. It may be possible to stem incoming mail to some degree. There exist tools for managing email more effectively (see below). There is, in addition, a behavioral change that can greatly assist as well. I would like to focus on the unfortunate inheritance from the past: the "Subject" line.

I propose reinterpretation, if not replacement, of the word "Subject" in the message header. Subject implies just "noun", dead and inactive. It relies on the recipient to intuit the untransmitted active verb. When one receives an email with the subject "Project Plan," for instance, one can have no idea based on the subject line alone what to do next. Is this plan distributed for purpose of notification only? Is it for review ? Is a response required? Is this a notice that there is an important change in plan, or that the plan document is going to be late in arriving? One cannot answer these questions without reading the message body, and even therein it's often a chore to interpret one's responsibility.

The simple solution is to treat the subject line, as you're authoring it, as "next action." Replace the sole noun with "verb the noun." How much better it would be to see "Send comments on included project plan by Friday." This transformation is applicable to all messages you send, and is remarkably powerful. In fact, adopting this simple reinterpretation of the subject line in your outgoing messages will have several important beneficial effects:
  1. When received, your email will naturally rise above other emails with more ambiguous subject lines. This gives your mail an automatic priority boost encouraging action. Imagine that others are suffering too from email overload. Clarifying the expected next action for your recipient will increase the chances that it will get handled.
  2. If the email requires a response, then after sending the message, you can easily transform the sent item into an @WaitingFor task for yourself. Since the subject is already expressed as a next action, you won't need to rewrite it. What you're expecting and when you're expecting it should already be clear.
  3. Recipients who adopt GTD, of course, will adore you, since even the most overflowing inbox would be easily transformed into an orderly series of tasks, if only the subject fields were so easily transformed into next actions.
  4. You'll find that once you adopt this, your correspondents will begin to adopt this too. Once they receive several clear examples from you, and once they notice that they act upon these more quickly, you'll see your inbox begin to populate with increasingly clear messages. (In fact, I'll add that a member of our team, James Laura, has taken this a step further and applied the principle to reply emails as well, moving well beyond the prefix of "RE:" to indicating the next next-action.)
I have a sticker on my computer that says "verb the noun". Even with this reminder, it's hard to break the "noun" habit. But I've found the replacement worthwhile.


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