calendar

Replacing E-mail: The calendar as communications tool

I want to begin a series of thoughts on how E-mail has failed us and what we should do about it.

Yes, E-mail has failed, and not, as we thought, because it got overwhelmed with spam. There is tons of spam but we seem to be handling it. The problem might be better described as “too much signal” rather than the signal/noise ratio. There are three linked problems:

  1. There is just too much E-mail from people we actually have relationships with. Part of this is the over-reach of businesses, who think that because you bought a tube of toothpaste that you should fill out a customer satisfaction survey and get the weekly bargains mail-out, but part of it is there really are a lot of people who want to interact with you, and e-mail makes it very easy for them to do that, particularly to “cc” you on mail you may only have a marginal interest.
  2. Because of problem 1, people are moving away from E-mail to other tools, particularly the younger generation. They (and we) are using Facebook mail and other social tools, instant messengers, texting and more.
  3. The volume means that you can’t handle it all. Important mails scroll off the main screen and are forgotten about. And some people are just not using their E-mail, so it is losing its place as the one universal and reliable way to send somebody a message.

One of the key differences the new media have is they focus on person to person communications — while there are group tools, they don’t even have the concept of a “cc” or mailing list, or even sending to two people.

I’m going to write more on these topics in the future, but today I want to talk about

The shared calendar as the communications tool

I’ve been pushing people I work with to use the calendar as the means of telling me about anything that is going to happen at a specific time. If people send me an E-mail saying, “Can we talk at 3?” I say, “don’t tell me that in an E-mail. Create an event on your calendar and invite me to it. Put the details of the conversation into the calendar entry.”

In general, I want to create a pattern of communication where if any message you send would cause the other person to put something on their calendar, you instead communicate it through the calendar by creating an event that they are an attendee of.

Our calendar and E-mail tools need to improve to make this work better. When everybody uses a shared calendar like Google Calendar, it is a lot easier, but we need tools that make it just as easy when people don’t use the same calendar tool.

When things do get into the calendar, you get a lot of nice benefits:

  • You are much less likely to forget about or miss the task or event
  • When you want to find the data on the event near the time of the event, you don’t have to hunt around for it — it is highlighted, in my case right on the home screen of my phone
  • If the event has a location, your phone typically is able to generate a map and even warn you when you need to leave based on traffic
  • If the event has a phone call/hangout/whatever, your devices can join that with a single click, no hunting for URLs or meeting codes — particularly while driving. (Google put in a tool to add one of their hangouts to any event in the calendar.)
  • Calendar events remove any confusion on time zones when people are in different zones.

Here are some features I want, some of which exist in current tools (particularly if you attach an ICS calendar entry to an E-mail) but which don’t yet work seamlessly.

  • Your email tool, when writing a message should notice if you’re talking about an event that’s not already in your calendars, and parse out dates and other data and turn it into a calendar invitation
  • Likewise your receiving tool should parse messages and figure this out, since the sender might not have done that.
  • E-mails that create calendar events should be linked together, so that from your calendar you can read all the email threads around the event, find any associated files or other resources.
  • Likewise it should be easy to contact any others tied to a calendar event by any means, not just the planned means of communication. For example, a good calendar should have a system where I can be phoned or texted on my cell phone by any other member of the event during the time around the event, without having to reveal my cell phone number. How often have you been waiting for a conference call to have somebody say, “does anybody know John’s number? Let’s find where he is.”
  • When I accept a calendar entry from outside and confirm, that should give them some access to use that calendar entry as a means of communication, even across calendar and mail platforms.

For example, when I book a flight or hotel or rent a car, the company should respond by putting that in my calendar. I might given them a token enabling that, or manually approve their invitation. Of course the confirmation numbers, links on how to change the reservation and more will be in the calendar entry. If the flight is delayed, they should be able to use this linkage to contact me — my calendar tool should know best where I am and the best ways to reach me — and push updates to me. When I get to the check-in desk, our shared calendar entry should make my phone and their computer immediately connect and make the process seamless.

When I approach the desk of a hotel, my phone should notice this, do the handshake and by the time I walk up they should say, “Good evening, Mr. Templeton, could you please sign this form? Here’s your room key, you’re in suite 1207.” (Of course, even better if I don’t have to sign the form and my phone, or any of the magstripe, chip or NFC cards I have in my wallet automatically become my room key.)

When you think this way, you start realizing that a surprisingly large amount of our E-mails are about events with times. And, as I wrote 8 years ago, most e-mails involve tasks, and E-mail and time management should be merged. Sadly my ideas of so long ago remain unrealized, and since then, E-mail has declined.

One caveat — if we do start using calendars for communication more, we must be able to prevent spam, and even over-use by people we know. We can’t do what we did with e-mail. Invitations to an event with just one or two people can be made easy — even automatic for those with authorization. Creating multi-person events needs to be a harder thing for people who aren’t whitelisted, though not impossible. The meaning of the word “invite” also needs to be more tightly understood. A solicitation for me to buy a ticket is not an invite.

E-mail programs should be time-management programs

For many of us, E-mail has become our most fundamental tool. It is not just the way we communicate with friends and colleagues, it is the way that a large chunk of the tasks on our “to do” lists and calendars arrive. Of course, many E-mail programs like Outlook come integrated with a calendar program and a to-do list, but the integration is marginal at best. (Integration with the contact manager/address book is usually the top priority.)

If you’re like me you have a nasty habit. You leave messages in your inbox that you need to deal with if you can’t resolve them with a quick reply when you read them. And then those messages often drift down in the box, off the first screen. As a result, they are dealt with much later or not at all. With luck the person mails you again to remind you of the pending task.

There are many time management systems and philosophies out there, of course. A common theme is to manage your to-do list and calendar well, and to understand what you will do and not do, and when you will do it if not right away. I think it’s time to integrate our time management concepts with our E-mail. To realize that a large number of emails or threads are also a task, and should be bound together with the time manager’s concept of a task.

For example, one way to “file” an E-mail would be to the calendar or a day oriented to-do list. You might take an E-mail and say, “I need 20 minutes to do this by Friday” or “I’ll do this after my meeting with the boss tomorrow.” The task would be tied to the E-mail. Most often, the tasks would not be tied to a specific time the way calendar entries are, but would just be given a rough block of time within a rough window of hours or days.

It would be useful to add these “when to do it” attributes to E-mails, because now delegating a task to somebody else can be as simple as forwarding the E-mail-message-as-task to them.

In fact, because, as I have noted, I like calendars with free-form input (ie. saying “Lunch with Peter 1pm tomorrow” and having the calender understand exactly what to do with it) it makes sense to consider the E-mail window as a primary means of input to the calendar. For example, one might add calendar entries by emailing them to a special address that is processed by the calendar. (That’s a useful idea for any calendar, even one not tied at all to the E-mail program.)

One should also be able to assign tasks to places (a concept from the “Getting Things Done” book I have had recommended to me.) In this case, items that will be done when one is shopping, or going out to a specific meeting, could be synced or sent appropriately to one’s mobile device, but all with the E-mail metaphor.

Because there are different philosophies of time management, all with their fans, one monolithic e-mail/time/calendar/todo program may not be the perfect answer. A plug-in architecture that lets time managers integrate nicely with E-mail could be a better way to do it.

Some of these concepts apply to the shared calendar concepts I wrote about last month.

Where's a good shared calendar?

I really wish I could find a really good calendaring tool. I’ve seen many of the features I want scattered in various tools, though some are nowhere to be found. I thought it would be good to itemize some of them. I’m mostly interested in *nix — I know that on Windows, MS Outlook is the most common choice, with Exchange for sharing.  read more »

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