Advice on how to read, from when I was Socialtext.
This is adapted from discussion at Socialtext where, because we are a distributed or virtual workforce, we move a huge amount of information around as text. It's been noted lately that the quantity of my blogging has slacked of late. This is mostly because I'm writing inside the walls of work, so here's something from the inside.
Socialtext wikis are called workspaces. Individuals are members of a some number of workspaces. These are usually divided up by topic, group or project. (Knowing this matters below.)
I frequently find myself at the intersection of two events
- some people wondering how I get so much read
- some people complaining about not being able to keep up with the stuff to read; me becoming somewhat bewildered by that
So mayhaps I should write down what I do and other folk can farm that for useful techniques or rationale to ignore me. This writing was somewhat inspired by discussion of how to maintain focus.
In case you find this not to your liking, that's okay. This is what I do. It works for me. It may not work for you, but then again it may.
First, there's no doubt that I read very quickly and skim at a very high level of presumed comprehension (that is, I'm able to convince myself that I got the bits that mattered; whether this is true or not is unknown). That's been true since I started reading. Second, I've become practiced with using tools that augment my ability to read (email filters, mail and rss reader settings, etc). Most of that practice happened when I was a sysadmin and my colleagues and I managed to get in the habit of feeling really nervous if our mail didn't get a response within a minute or so.
I proceed from the assumption that as knowledge workers our primary job is to communicate. Communication is not overhead, it's the work. Things like writing code are reifications of previous communication. The quality of the code mirrors the quality of the communication and comprehension that precedes the generation of the code.
So, starting from that assumption I have some general rules of thumb about what I should be doing:
- before writing or acting read everything in your circle of concern all your email all the new and updated content in workspaces you care about
- When it is time to write or act, do that until you are done, then read again.
Reading email and workspaces deserves more more explanation. First, turn off email notify in all workspace and get a good rss aggregator that can show diffs (this is perhaps the single most useful thing to do to enable "staying abreast"). Only subscribe to those workspaces that are germane, rely on others to let you know when something important is happening in some other workspace that is not in your immediate circle of concern. Second, use filters with your email: send email to different folders depending on topic or list. If possible get a mail program that lets you start it with a different set of folders available depending on the activity you are engaged in (for me this is work and not work). Use one that lets you hit the same key to just keep on reading.
- as your read, delete everything that doesn't matter
- if an incoming folder (other than annoying non-work mailing lists which have your non-continious always-partial attention) is above a certain size, say 20 messages or so, ''something is wrong''. There either aren't enough incoming folders, or you aren't deleting and responding with alacrity.
- read again
- respond to anything that needs a response and delete the responded-to message (if you can't trust your emailer to send your mail correctly, or keep copies of your sent mail, or otherwise make you feel confident in deleting messages, fix that!)
- do whatever getting things done work-alike thing it takes for you to deal with messages you can't respond to but think are important signifiers in your life, but remember #2 above (I leave them in the folder and let #2 keep me in check)
- when you are reading, anything that seems important, send to a tab in your browser
- read everything
- configure your aggregator so it updates itself differently for different kinds of feeds. I update Socialtext related feeds once an hour (or by hand whenever I'm in a break) but other feeds only update every six hours or so
- when done reading go to your browser and review the tabs and deal with as appropriate (garden, comment, post to delicious, whatever), if it's been a while since the page was loaded in your browser, you may wish to reload
Do these things without paying attention to IRC.
The trick here, for me, is that whether I'm in email or NetNewsWire I just sort of idly hit a key, soaking it all in. I generate a gestalt of the state of things I care about. Only after I've made it all the way through do I react because it is the whole state of the little work universe that matters when responding, not just the one atom of information that's currently under the cursor.
The snobby/arrogant part of me often feels like saying, "Have you read everything?" before having a conversation with people. I suspect this is annoying for those people. It is similarly annoying for me to have to come down to the limited MTU of speech...
I feel speech is best at two stages of the ShareLanguage spectrum: when there is very little (and reading is not much help in developing understanding, either because there are no SharedGoals to jumpstart understanding or there's just too much ignorance for a foundation to exist) and when there is a great deal (when so much SharedLanguage is present that MTU and bandwidth are high and speech has been transcended in favor of something like SharedBrain). In the middle, reading can be a good tool because it situates wait states in the reader. Work colleagues are generally (or perhaps should be) in the middle, except for some occasions when pairing, face to face, or starting a new thing.
Clearly this is a self-serving attitude on my part, and I temper myself (at least a little) accordingly, at least when I remember to do so. But now you know. Feel free to comment, but please don't try to tell me I'm wrong for me or anyone else other than you. You're the only person you can be sure about. And even that's not clear.
There's an important corollary to the above rules:
- When possible, always send your email to a relevant group list that is archived.
This helps insure the opportunities for people to know the gestalt of the environment. It also helps maintain artifacts.