E-mail Notifications Aren’t Always Useful

Mr Popular

Notifications are an essential part of most computer systems. Operations happen asynchronously and users who care about the completion of them need to be notified somehow. In most cases e-mail is the primary way someone is notified. E-mail has been around forever and it’s easy to address a message to a specific user or a group of users. Most programming frameworks also include the ability to e-mail.

I hate e-mail notifications. Okay; so hate is a powerful word. I severely dislike e-mail notifications.

E-mail is fundamentally broken.

E-mail has been around since the beginning of Internet time – even before it. Internet e-mail protocols have remained rather unchanged since 1982 when SMTP was introduced. This means e-mail is a reliable protocol but also it partially means it hasn’t held up well to the rapidly changing ways of how we communicate. E-mail usage has been eclipsed dramatically by things like SMS, iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and so on. This feels very much like how the postal service’s letter carrying service has evolved into only the mechanism in which bills and advertisements arrive to your house.

E-mail can be hard to set up. We all have problems remembering usernames and passwords. E-mail is even worse with mixing in POP/IMAP/SMTP server addresses, port numbers, authentication methods, and SSL settings. Thankfully the major players like Gmail have wizards in most modern operating systems making the configuration process somewhat easier. Work e-mail can be confounded even more with VPN and proxy requirements.

We live in a world of data caps on cellular networks and home Internet connections. E-mail is not a super efficient player in this world. While most messages are a small number of bytes e-mail clients can add a ton of bloat. HTML formatting, attached images, and protocol inefficiencies can silently suck up your data. I’ve had many e-mail clients get stuck sending a message in a loop wiping out my remaining data for the month.

Rich content in e-mail clients is vastly difficult to pull off. Ask any web developer whom has been asked to create a slick marketing message or pretty template. Life becomes painful when you have to test your HTML against many e-mail clients. Rendering is randomly broken, JavaScript doesn’t always work, and localizing isn’t really possible.

In the end there’s no guarantee that your message was delivered to the recipient. You also don’t reliably have a way to determine if your message was read either. There are tricks for read notifications and newer optional protocols for delivery reliability. None of these really do much more than add more uncertainty to the process.

We use e-mail for everything. Notifications are lost in the noise.

How many of you have thousands of unread (and read) messages in your inbox right now? I’d guess a lot of you. E-mail clearly isn’t working for how we’re using it.

There are classes given at a corporate level to teach e-mail etiquette. Don’t carbon-copy your entire team, don’t include the body of the message you’re replying to, don’t put pictures in your e-mail signature, save the environment don’t print this e-mail, and so on. It’s a system that’s easy to abuse.

An automated notification e-mail from your production system monitor comes in to tell you something is wrong. How long does it take for you to see it? Do you have rules set up to bubble “important” things to the top or in another bucket? I bet some of those monitoring systems are false alerts or not super serious so they sit in your inbox, unread. You’ll eventually get to them and the problem will be fixed. You better leave those messages there “for the reminder’s sake.” Sound familiar?

The important stuff gets lost. We can’t easily mute the things that aren’t important. There’s no simple way to move a bar up and down for the severity of your notifications. You get all or nothing and that adds to information fatigue.

Changes aren’t transmitted well.

I subscribe to a number of internal WordPress blogs at Automattic using the O2 theme. This theme gives us nested comments and a super lightweight way of communicating in an asynchronous manner. However, we do have so many of these blogs and you can only subscribe to so many before your brain asplodes. I use the WordPress.com Reader to subscribe to new posts. A lot of my colleagues use e-mail notifications for this.

Blog posts aren’t static. Once they’ve been posted they can still be edited. By subscribing to new posts via e-mail you’re missing any edits done after the initial post. Imagine sending out a piece of code for your coworkers to test and right after you publish it you realize you made a mistake. You quickly edit the post, wipe your brow, and then hope nobody saw it. Anyone who got the e-mail notification won’t see your update and will comment on the error. Chances are the other person won’t read the edited post when the link to the post is clicked to comment on it. Subscribing to edits on posts as a solution is terribly taxing on the brain.

So what’s the solution?

There are a lot of ways to communicate to users that isn’t e-mail. Push notifications are the cleanest solution but they typically require a mobile or desktop app to be the receiver/displayer of the notifications. The WordPress mobile and desktop apps provide a contextually-relevant place to queue the notifications and read when appropriate. Badge icons, banner notifications and sounds all are configurable by the user to reduce fatigue. Use do not disturb on your device  when you’re opting out of everything for a period of time.

Push notifications aren’t without their failings either. Most providers don’t offer 100% guarantee of delivery. Users can also feel bombarded by every app sending notifications and end up turning the feature off. There are ways to handle these situations in a series of escalation steps.

In normal circumstances users view/respond to a push notification in an allowable amount of time. Urgent notifications requiring action should be allotted less time. Notification read receipts may be a feature available by the platform. At least if the app is launched you can generally determine that the notification has been seen. Then the app silently indicates such through to your servers.

Notifications that don’t get read can get pushed again, sent as an e-mail with a high priority, or end up turning into a phone call. You may choose to “dial down” the number sent if a user isn’t reading less  important notifications. Instead choose to notify your user less but with more content to prevent them from feeling fatigue and uninstalling your app.

E-mail isn’t always the best option for communicating things to your users. Know how your users want to use your systems and come up with a method that prevents both missed messages and fatigue. Notify people when it’s contextually relevant and give them options to turn things off when it bothers them. Users who ignore your notifications are one step away from not finding value in your product or service.

Bicycler’s Quiet

Bicycling is my meditation. I use it as part of my toolset to calm my brain and to train my mind to take in a lot of input and focus on important things. I recently realized that there’s a moment that doesn’t happen very often when biking. It sometimes takes an entire summer for me to have it occur. I call it the Bicycler’s Quiet.

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Bicycler’s Quiet is the sudden loss of wind noise in your ears when you’re cycling with the wind. It doesn’t happen very often because you need to be cycling at roughly the same speed and direction of the wind. Biking on days with very little to no wind doesn’t do it because your movement creates wind across your ears.

I love when it happens. Everything specific to the bike becomes quiet and you hear the world around you like it’s the first time. Super surreal and it’s a moment I live for. 🙃

Another Year Around the Sun

37th Birthday

I turn 37 today. It’s been an amazing journey through life so far and I can’t wait to see where the next 37+ years lead me.

In the past five years alone things have changed so much. I finished my master’s degree, we got a place “up north” for the weekends and met so many fun people, I’ve had amazing jobs doing what I love – software development, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a number of conferences about the things I’ve done. I’ve also learned a lot about myself listening to my brain and figuring out this thing called ADD/ADHD.

My goals for the next five years? Meet more awesome people. Do more awesome things. Be an even better human and husband.

Just Do It Tomorrow

I am a procrastinator.

I have always believed I was a procrastinator. I tend to put difficult tasks off until when they are due. I always believed it was the pressure of the deadline that forced me to complete the task. College gave me a series of structured deadlines to learn new things. Procrastination can also add undue stress onto your system. Over time it will make you feel like you’re stupid and can’t get anything done. ADHD and procrastination seem to go hand in hand as well.

I’m sort of done with procrastination. It sucks and I know I’m smarter than this.

This month I’m speaking at two conferences and giving two different talks. The first is on remote working (a “soft” topic) and the other on an introduction to RxSwift – a fairly complex programming topic. I’ve known I needed to prepare these talks for several months and I have been doing the work. The remote working talk went off well. The RxSwift talk is upcoming and I’m sweating it. I want the people at my talk to get something significant out of it and not walk away feeling something was missing or it was a waste of time. When I finally made this statement to myself I realized something significant:

It’s not procrastination – it’s a failure to start.

I didn’t dive into the demo project for the talk because I felt like an imposter. How could I give a talk about a topic I am not an expert in? The reality is I needed to dive into code to incrementally learn the topic better to give people a leg up on their first try at RxSwift. This fear of being an imposter kept making me lose focus on simple things and putting them off.

I seem to have an enhanced behavior of finding something else to do instead of the “real work” when I encounter mental resistance. Mental resistance can come from not knowing a subject or the task feeling remedial. I tend to find other things to do instead like opening up a Facebook tab or checking the 14 different Slack instances I’m in for new messages. I know it is time to step back and re-center myself when I notice that my brain starts derailing like this.

When you find yourself slipping on a task or unable to commit to get something done I suggest doing the following:

  • Break the task down into smaller bits and just get started on the first one. Just get started.
  • Walk away. Literally – walk. Exercise is my number one tool to combat attention and focus issues. Grab your headphones and take a short walk around your office or neighborhood. Don’t actively try to think about your problem at hand – just take in the different atmosphere. You’ll be surprised how often an idea comes to you seemingly randomly during this process.
  • Prevent the distraction by blocking the thing you’re using as a mental crutch. In my case it was logging out of Facebook and blocking the site on my machine. The behavior broke after several months on my work computer. If it’s something like wandering and cleaning your house, close your office door and leave a note to yourself to focus. Maybe try the Pomodoro Technique for 20 minute focus sessions.
  • If all else fails stop committing to things you can’t get done. You’re not a failure if you don’t have time or interest. Dig deep in your head to see what’s important to you and your future.

Sometimes we don’t have a choice and we just have to buckle down and get something done. Reward yourself. Check off that box and celebrate! Sometimes the little successes are more important than the big ones.

Just Get Started

I tend to set myself up for defeat with how my brain works when trying to accomplish a task. I overthink things.

When I pull a task from my list of things to do a process starts in my head. I visualize the task and then try to figure out what the solution is and how it looks at the end. Smaller tasks with a clear goal seem to start just fine. Tasks that are a bit more nebulous or aren’t clear how to do everything end up stalling. I end up wasting time misdirecting myself so I don’t have to face the fact that I don’t have an immediate solution.

I also tend to misdirect myself with tasks that have a clear solution but aren’t terribly exciting. It takes a serious conscious effort for me to keep a grasp on things that tend to be mundane but are a part of my day.

While my focus on this post is generally around my job it applies to how I approach things with my personal life too. Unimportant or difficult tasks tend to get stalled and I will find myself doing other things (like cleaning, checking out Facebook, the weather…) just to not face the task at hand.

So … Just Start.

So how do I get over this fear of working on a task?

Just start.

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Sounds simple, right? It boils down to these things:

  • If this is a larger task admit you can’t see the end and just find the first small chunk you can work on. Smaller tasks are easier to finish and it lets your unconscious noodle on the entire project in the meantime.
  • Turn off the distractions and be cognizant of when you misdirect yourself. Try to figure out a pattern to what causes it and stop it before it happens.
  • If this a task that’s just not engaging or not exciting but its something you need to do, just start. Once you get moving and you prevent the misdirection you’ll finish and feel good.
  • Celebrate the finished tasks.

 

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The Power of Five Minutes When Working Remote

Minutes can make a difference. This is something I quickly discovered early on when I started working remote.

The granularity of a usable block of time was much bigger when I worked in an office and had a 20 minute commute each way. Unconsciously I believe I felt 15 minutes was the smallest unit of time I could use to create or do something effective. Since I started working remote, I’ve discovered that unit of time has decreased to something even smaller which is closer to five minutes.

I can get a lot done with five minutes. I can wake up, let the dogs outside, get the coffee started, and then be at my desk working. I don’t have the normal rituals to adhere to in the morning – getting ready for work, driving, going up the elevator, saying hi, putting my lunch away, and then putting my mind into work mode. I end up starting on my treadmill desk right away in the morning with my coffee (when it finishes). If you’re lucky to video chat with me in my morning I’ll have bed head and workout clothes on. 😏

Once I realized how much I could actually get done in those five minutes I discovered other longer tasks were less efficient uses of my time. Driving to get a cup of coffee from Starbucks took easily 20 minutes. That’s 4 times the amount of time I need to do something useful! OMG THE HORROR!

Working remote, to me, means working more efficiently. I try to use my time wisely and keep on track with my goals for the day. It’s easy for me to get off track (especially for me dealing with ADD) so I have to break down my tasks into smaller achievable tasks. I also love checking off boxes when I finished something.

You can get a lot of things done in five minutes. Just don’t forget you can also take a five minute break.

Featured image courtesy of http://scrutiny.deviantart.com/art/Time-is-Slipping-Away-177781756

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How Working Remote (Probably) Saved My Life

Before Working Remote

In July 2013 I started working remote at Automattic working on the WordPress for iOS app. I was pretty happy with my life at that time and the transition to the new job was not for reasons of disliking my previous job. In fact I loved working for Red Arrow Labs in Milwaukee and it was incredibly hard leaving them. I only left Red Arrow because it felt like Automattic was my unicorn of jobs and I had stumbled upon it by sheer luck. It turns out that I really wasn’t entirely happy with how things were going in my life at the time even though the job was great.

I don’t believe single data points like body weight can gauge happiness. It is, however, an indicator of my overall health and satisfaction with my daily life. In 2010 I had dropped to 235lb/106kg without much effort except eliminating bad foods and walking around the neighborhood a lot. Life changed a bit and within three years I was back up to the 280lb/127kg range.

I was admitted to the ER in 2011 when my heart rhythm freaked me out. I was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation (aFib) which is when the electrical signals around your heart freak out. The major risk associated with aFib is stroke because while your heart is beating all weird blood has the chance to pool causing a clot to form. I ended up being put on two medications and regular checkups with an electrophysiologist. Something had to change.

Weight Loss Failures

I’ve learned over time that major self change only is successful when done in super small increments. Drastic short term changes, while satisfying to the impulse buyers in us, end up failing for myself because I miss the old way. Riding my new bike to work was a great success for me and made me feel really good – but it took a lot of effort. Instead of continuing with the biking to work I dissuaded myself by convincing myself it was too cold, or I had an early meeting and couldn’t be sweaty, or my knees hurt a little. Turns out I was doing too much too fast.

I didn’t really find out how to let myself be successful until I left my office job and starting working remote at Automattic. Almost immediately I realized I really did have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and couldn’t ignore it any longer. My level of success as an Automattician depended on me being able to focus and alter my environment to remove distractions. I immediately changed everything in my office and set up all these tools like using the Pomodoro Technique, notebooks, standing at my desk. I felt super successful at first but in the end none of these techniques helped because I got overwhelmed.

In October 2013 I realized I needed help. I ended up seeing a counselor who specializes in both substance abuse and ADD. She helped me work through some of the issues I was having with my attention and got me to realize how I was able to succeed in the past and why I was failing now. The nature of working in an office with the multitude of distractions worked in favor of the ADD. Removing those distractions made me entirely in charge of my workday and my brain spun out of control. For around four months I was on Vyvannse to help let me see how my brain could operate with the focus I was looking for. Ultimately I took myself off of the meds because of some behavioral changes that were too drastic of a change. What I discovered pretty quickly though is a daily regimen breaking things up into chunks made a big difference in my ability to do work.

Combating the Change Aversion

I started biking again mid 2012 after buying my first “real” bicycle made by Trek. I had no excuses any longer to biking – I finally had the comfortable seat, full range of gears, and a proper fit. I recorded all of my trips in RunKeeper for future analysis (like this post). I wanted to go for longer bike rides but excuses like being sweaty or its a bit chilly got in my way.

I started working out over my “lunch hour” to help break up the day. Your brain chemistry changes during exercise and I discovered it helped reset my thoughts. I found a bunch of great step aerobics videos on YouTube from Jenny Ford. A small investment in a step bench allowed me to work out right in my office with a minimal mental barrier. I can shower after I’m done and there is zero commute to the gym. Over time I went from one day a week to around three days.

As time has progressed I’ve mixed in riding my bicycle almost every day during the summer for an hour (roughly 15 miles) with exercising in my basement. On bad weather days I stick with the routine because I now consider exercise just a regular part of my day. I don’t need to overdo it to get benefits from it. For the last year I’ve been also using a treadmill under my desk walking on average of 6-10 miles a day. I absolutely love walking and working especially in the morning.

All of these changes to my exercise regimen happened super gradually. Any time I started something new I would come in at the ground level with no expectations of success. If I didn’t like something, I stopped doing it. There was no need to try to fool myself with doing something like just because it burned a lot of calories.

Automattic

Working remote is a big part of my success but the other part is specific to Automattic. A subset of us have banded together to encourage fitness routines and providing support when things go wrong. We have a Slack chat room dedicated to fitness that is full of awesome praise and discussions. RunKeeper friends from work also provide that boost of support when we have that tiny success finishing a workout. At our grand meetups every year we also encourage physical activities to connect us together doing something active and fun. Automattic even recently bought everyone a Fitbit device of their liking to let us be aware of our activity levels.

Before working at Automattic I always thought of fitness as a specific set of things – things like P90X and powdered drinks/supplements, talking about your current weight lifting levels and competition meant to boast not encourage. Turns out none of that is the truth here. We have a bunch of people doing weight lifting, Crossfit, and running but its all ego-free. We all have our own approach to fitness and no judgement is passed only encouragement. It’s super awesome.

Where I’m at Today

My weight has dropped to around 225lb/102kg and remained relatively plateaued over the past year. Recently I’ve mixed in weight/resistance every other day which I am really enjoying. My goal isn’t weight loss but rather increasing my focus with the side effect of increased stamina to do the fun things like biking or walking. With the weight loss and greatly improved active lifestyle I’ve been able to stop the aFib medications and just have biannual checkups with my electrophysiologist.

Having both the flexibility of working remote and the support of my coworkers going through similar challenges has helped a lot. I am a better person for combating the physical health issues and establishing a framework to counteract the ADD. While I don’t believe I’d really be dead today if I had continued on the path of the unchecked body weight, I do know I am healthier and much happier.