There are so many things wrong with techno-determinist claims such as, “the Internet makes us dumber” and “texting makes us lonely” and “Facebook steals our souls” and “even multitaskers are bad at multitasking,” that I barely know where to begin. The neuroscience is bad, the psychology naive, and the perspective on the impact of culture on our behavior is short-sighted and narrow. But, to be really blunt, the thing that makes me angriest about our pundits who are ready to say the Internet dooms us and our kids is that, well, I don’t like feeling doomed. The Internet is not going to go away any time soon, so I don’t want to know if spending too much time on it is worse for my brain than, say, watching Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of Orange County. I want to know what I can do to take advantage of the digital possibilities in my life and to come up with the best ways of managing my workload, given the new ways that work flows in the digital age.
That is why I’m so grateful to Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED talks, for his recent “Email Charter” that crowdsources ideas about how we can all do better with this efficient, fantastic, and frustrating new means of communication. My students deal with it simply by ignoring it. If it isn’t a text, it’s invisible to them and that is not an irrational response, actually, to information overload. But for the workplace, Anderson offers more practical suggestions (ones that won’t get you fired). We’re right on time for the Emily Post of the Internet Age and we all need those ingrained rules and rituals that everyone understands and that will help us all.
In researching NYSI, I interviewed experts as well as just ordinary people who had come up with some great new ways of teaching kids how to think critically about the technology they’ve inherited and to help adults control our information flows. Some of these we’ve adapted to my own collaborative technology and learning team at Duke and we have one that would make a “killer app” and is already a killer practice that saves us enormous time and, I’m convinced, email-driven workplace frustrations and misunderstandings.
It’s called “AGENDA!” and until we develop our official app, the all caps and exclamation point simply serve as an attention device, to sort specially designated items from the rest of the day’s information flow. Because there are seven of us, each with different times in the office, some working more at home than others, all with radically different expertise and areas of responsibility, we have weekly scheduled meetings where each member of the team contributes the equivalent of twenty minutes of AGENDA items. During the week, whenever a complex, multi-part, ambiguous, or contentious email comes, either from within the team or from outside, one of us cc’s all the rest and, in the subject line, we write “AGENDA” and then the subject. The office manager who curates the “general” part of our weekly meetings then collects these, simply using “AGENDA” in the email inbox search, and arranges them topically. This means that the one annoyingly complex, six-part email with some parts that can be answered with a simple “yes” but others that need sign-off from the university human resources department, for example, go into the weekly meeting discussion and we can divvy up tasks, going over the email together, figuring out who does what. It also means that if something gets on my nerves in an email, instead of flying off the handle online (never a good idea, sayeth E-Maily Post), I just write “AGENDA” and we deal with it face-to-face. Rule #1 of email: don’t try to negotiate emotional complexity with it. It never works.
AGENDA is a way of controlling information about information. It helps us manage responses in a human, collaborative way when, without the AGENDA process, a whole series of contradictory responses is likely to pour in, further complicating instead of solving the issue. It’s my best, easiest trick for collaborative office management in the Information Age.
Stay tuned for lots of others!