Segmenting communication

I’ve been called old-fashioned when it comes to communication. Some people don’t understand why I like email so much. (I love email. It’s the best. Please email me.)

One reason is that it’s the only good way to send messages which are clearly non-urgent, and can be easily tracked. Why is this important? I think it saves everyone a lot of time and attention, by removing unnecessary interruptions.

Message urgency

Communications can be segmented in various ways, one of which is by urgency. Most people would agree that there’s a relatively clear one-dimensional spectrum of message urgency, from “I found a cool cat picture” to “I’m outside your door” to “My house is on fire”. Broadly we could refer to these as low-urgency (whenever), medium-urgency (as soon as convenient), and high-urgency (right now).

A hundred years ago, when our choices of communication were limited, things were pretty straightforward. Low urgency? Send a letter. Medium urgency? A telegram might do. High urgency? Phone call.

Twenty years ago, things were similar. You might send a letter or email for a low-urgency message. Medium urgency could be a text, or a message through an IM platform such as MSN, AIM, or IRC. High urgency would be a phone call, ideally to someone’s mobile if they had one.

Now we’re in a world where a significant amount of communication goes through platforms like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Snapchat, and Instagram, where messages occupy an usually large portion of the urgency spectrum. While there are other reasons these platforms may not be ideal, I think there’s a high productivity cost associated with the lack of urgency segmentation in messages sent through these platforms.

Cost of interruptions

There might be benefits to multi-tasking in some situations, but generally it’s considered bad for productivity. Taking this idea further, the concept of Deep Work – long periods of uninterrupted focus – has become popular in recent years, and associated with success in challenging fields.

The interruption cost is worth paying in the case of an urgent message. But because of the lack of segmentation, a large number of non-urgent messages also incur this cost. The average WhatsApp user receives around 50 messages per day. How many of those are urgent to the extent of needing to be seen within a few minutes? Almost certainly no more than a handful. Yet for most people those will all trigger a sound or vibration alert, distracting them from what they’re doing at the time.

Tools for dealing with this are fairly limited. Some options:

Two things I’d really like to see (please let me know if you know of a way to do this!):

  • Opt-in, rather than opt-out, to notifications: this should really be a standard feature on mobile operating systems. Currently whenever I install a new app I then have to go and disable notifications separately.
  • Prod: disable notifications by default for a messaging app, but give users the option to notify others of urgent messages on a per-message basis.


It might seem a bit misguided to talk about social networking apps in terms of productivity, since productivity might not be something you particularly care about. However, increased productivity will tend to mean you spend less time doing things you don’t like and more time doing things you enjoy, so even if you’re not interested in increasing your output, you’ll probably gain from investing in increased productivity.

Equally, interruptions detract from experiences where productivity isn’t involved. Watching a film, going for a walk, or just having dinner with someone are all generally better without unnecessary notifications.

In certain areas productivity can be a final goal – such as at work. Now that IM (Skype, Slack, Bloomberg…) is a staple in the office, it’s a huge attention drain. I think in the vast majority of cases it probably does more harm than good, especially in a culture that overly values quick responses. Note that here, email is only a good solution if it’s used properly. As always, Cal Newport has some suggestions.

On Weekly Reviews

As I talked about in my post on annual reviews, I use a weekly diary-type process to keep track of how everything is going.

My process is simple: I have a spreadsheet in Google Docs which has a number of rows containing questions, and every week I add a new column with the answers to those for that week. I usually set aside around half an hour to do this, though depending on what the week has been like for me it could take more or less time than that.

The exact questions will depend on what’s important to you and what you want to track. A few of my key ones are:

  • What went well this week?
  • What went badly this week?
  • Who did you enjoy spending time with?
  • Who did you not enjoy spending time with?
  • What’s your mood like right now?
  • What happened this week?

In the first two I usually put down things like work, personal relationships, sleep, exercise, nutrition, motivation, and progress on projects outside of work.

Three and four force me to be honest about the people I spend time with, and allow me be more aware of whose company I enjoy consistently and who I should be spending more or less time with.

The last two are great when looked at across an entire year. While the mood question tends to have a one word answer, the other one I treat like a free-text area where I just write down in a few lines all the things I can remember happening, in no particular order. This part is more like a traditional diary, and gives some insight into what I was thinking about/doing each week.

I think everyone should take the time to answer the above six questions on a weekly basis. This system not only provides them with greater insight into themselves, but is also a useful tool looking back across a period of several months.

In addition to the above, I’ve also integrated a few extra things into my weekly review process:

  • External data sources — RescueTime measures how I spend my time on my phone and computer, and sometimes faces me with the grim reality that I spent 5+ hours on WhatsApp in a single week. Beeminder keeps track of my more short-term personal goals and habit commitments.
  • GTD cleanup — clearing my In list and reviewing my Next Actions list to ensure that everything there is still relevant. More details here.
  • Meta goals — spending 30 seconds thinking about how I can improve my weekly review, and another 30 seconds checking my calendar and finding a convenient time to do it next week.

The last point is crucial to keeping up this or any other habit, and is something I will elaborate on in a future post.

Having done this mini review every week for a year now (except one where I was on a two week road-trip holiday and completely forgot) I feel like it’s added a lot to my life and I expect it to evolve more as I keep doing it. I’d like to thank Cal Newport for giving me the idea to do this.

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On Annual Reviews

Reviewing One Year; Planning The Next

There is one ingredient (other than coffee) that is key to a successful annual review — and that’s acknowledging that a year is a long time. Our minds aren’t built to compare events across such long time frames, and a severe subconscious distortion takes place when you try to think about everything that happened in an entire year. The solution to this is to make reviewing your life not just something you do on a yearly basis, but an ongoing process.

Looking Backward

Weekly Reviews and The Availability Heuristic

The Availability Heuristic is a cognitive bias that was introduced to me in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s the phenomenon which causes people to make judgements about the probability and significance of events by how easy it is to think of examples.

In practice, it means that more recent events are far easier to remember than distant events, and so we see them as more significant and more frequent. So when we do an annual review without prior planning, we often end up reviewing the end of the year rather than the year as a whole.

To avoid this bias, and to try to separate recency from importance or intensity, it helps to review the year’s events as if they just happened.

The way I’ve started doing that is to keep a kind of log, a very compact diary, on a weekly basis. I’ve been doing this for a year now and I feel like it’s really helped me keep things in perspective. Reading through this I’ll often be surprised at how significant things which happened a long time ago seemed at the time. I’ve written about my weekly review process in more detail here.

Looking Forward

Use Systems, Not Goals

Gym attendance statistics are one piece of evidence to suggest that New Year’s resolutions don’t tend to work — the general defeatist attitude towards them is another.

Goals like “exercise more”, “eat less”, “learn to speak French” and “lose 5kg” are almost impossible to realise by themselves. Scott Adams has written and talked about this quite a bit. Describing a system as a way to “continually look for better options”, he writes:

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal — if you reach it at all — feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

To combat this, I use a combination of vague guidelines and rigid systems. Guidelines are idealistic rules which give guidance in decision making, whereas systems are there to implement these rules in a realistic and sustainable way.

A guideline might be something like Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The associated system could be a combination of Beeminder goals to eat less meat and less sugar.

Another set of guidelines could be: “Spend more time with people who help you grow. Spend less time with people you’re indifferent about, and people who hold you back.” This could be implemented as a system by forcing yourself to think consciously on a weekly basis about who you enjoyed spending time with, and who you didn’t.

This year was the first time I implemented these new tools, spending a morning in the local library with a lot of coffee, a notebook and a laptop. I got a lot of clarity out of those few hours, and it got me excited about the year coming up. If you’d like to try this out you might find my other post about weekly reviews helpful.

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For more on cognitive biases, check out the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Buy it now on Amazon (UK/US) or compare prices across multiple stores (UK/US).

Workflowy: Just the tool for Getting Things Done

There’s a chance you’ve read Getting Things Done — a great book which at its core describes a system to externalise ‘to do’ items, taking them from being in your head to being written down somewhere, allowing you not to worry about them until it’s time to take action.

I read the book a while ago and found the system interesting, but never managed to implement it because of practical reasons — while the book describes a system, it doesn’t provide a tool. I tried several tools including a physical notepad (great when you have it with you, useless when you don’t) and web services such as Trello (a good tool for collaborating on a project and capturing its state, but not for lists with several layers of depth) and Google Keep (useful for searchable notes and reminders, but not for long lists or keeping track of projects). None of them were good enough for me to be able to implement the system and reap any of its benefits, and I was left having to keep things in my head.

Just a few weeks ago my interest in the GTD system was rekindled when I came across an article called “GTD in 15 minutes — A Pragmatic Guide to Getting Things Done”. I decided to give it another go using Workflowy, a list keeping service which I had previously discarded because of its (at the time) limited mobile app. I found that this was not the case anymore: the mobile app now has a great range of features including offline support, meaning that you can check and update items even when you don’t have internet access. It also supports unlimited (as far as I can tell) list depth, hashtags, dragging and dropping items between lists, and makes it very easy to add new items or mark things as done.

I read through the 15 minute guide and set about implementing the system in Workflowy. Here are the key things if you want to try it yourself.

Create a Next Actions list

The core insight of the GTD system is that many ‘to-do’ lists contain items that aren’t immediately doable, so they end up getting postponed indefinitely. This might be because they’re too vague (‘exercise’), too large (‘start food blog’), or both. The Next Actions list is David Allen’s proposed solution to this. This list is only allowed to contain items which start with verbs, have no outstanding dependencies, and can be started immediately.

How is this so different from a normal to-do list? The difference is that you can glance at your Next Actions list whenever you have time, pick something, and do it. It becomes a more mechanical process, and removing ambiguity surrounding a task means less chance of getting distracted (I’ve certainly had my fair share of start task -> get confused -> watch tv -> feel guilty and look for another task to start -> repeat process).

How does this system help me keep my list actionable? By having an easy-to-follow structure. New items coming in don’t get added straight to the Next Actions list if they don’t satisfy the criteria, but are added to a temporary In list and processed when convenient. There’s also a Waiting For list for items which have been delegated or have dependencies, and a Projects list for a more high level view. Lastly there’s a list of things you’ll get around to… Someday/Maybe.

My five lists in Workflowy. Each of the bullets under Projects contains further items or lists.

Create the other lists and add some items

Here’s a more detailed description of each list. Take a few minutes here and try to come up with two or three items to add to each list. Feel free to use my list above for inspiration.

  1. Next Actions: a list of actionable tasks. These are all things that can be picked up by you and worked on given the right context (more on this later), and can include items like “call mum” or “buy bananas”. All of these should start with a verb, and not require input from anyone else to get you started.
  2. In: this is where you jot down anything that occurs to you that you want to follow up on, which as the article mentions can be anything including “your boss telling you to bake her a carrot cake, or seeing a poster for a circus you want to see.” This provides a brain dump that can be processed at a later time into items to go into the other lists.
  3. Waiting For: items you’ve delegated or can’t take action on right now, for example when you’re waiting for feedback from someone, or you’re planning on buying tickets for a festival once they go on sale.
  4. Projects: high level list of things you’re working on. Each of these projects can have one or multiple items associated with it in the Next Actions list. This allows you to keep track of the overarching goals behind items in other lists and come up with new Next Actions.
  5. Someday/Maybe: this might be the most important list of all, at least according to Warren Buffett. These are things you’d like to work on but not right now, and by putting them in this list you can free your mind from thinking about them and come back when you have time.

Maintain the lists

  • All new items will usually be added to the In list first.
  • The In and Waiting For lists should be reviewed regularly and actionable items added to the Next Actions list (unless they would take less than 2 minutes, in which case you should do them immediately).
  • The Projects and Someday/Maybe lists can be reviewed less frequently to check that each active project has a next action defined.
  • The Next Actions list will need to be reviewed continually — whenever you have some time, look through this list and find something you can do. This is where contexts come in.

Contexts are environments associated with certain actions. For example, the ‘buy bananas’ action can be done when at a shop, whereas the ‘fix door handle’ action requires you to be at home and ‘buy festival tickets’ is easiest when at a computer. Workflowy has a great feature for this: by using hashtags (e.g. #shop, #home, or #computer) you can tag each action with one or more contexts, and when you find yourself idle in that context you can display all the items with that tag.

While this gives you enough to get started, in the interest of brevity I’ve skipped over a lot of things which are covered in this 15 minute guide and in more depth in the Getting Things Done book. I would really recommend reading at least the 15 minute guide if you want to use this system, as you’ll win this time back in less than a few days of using it.

Sign up for Workflowy for free and get double the list capacity! This link will give you 500 free items/month, as opposed to the 250 you’d get if you signed up through their website without a referral.

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