Are Real-Life Interruptions The Best Email Hack Ever?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a face-to-face conversation with a colleague must be worth about a million email threads.

Are Real-Life Interruptions The Best Email Hack Ever?
[Image: Flickr user Anna Levinzon]

If you absolutely need to make yourself clear to your colleague, Behance’s William Allen has a potentially incendiary hack to suggest: FaceMail.


He explained how it works at 99u:

My colleagues Zach and Jackie coined the word “FaceMail” for the age-old act of walking over to your colleague’s desk and starting a conversation. A few minutes of face-to-face conversation eliminates days of email threads.

In elevating face-to-face interactions above overly mediated ones, Allen echoes advice that antedates email itself: David Ogilvy, the incomparable ad man and super prolific writer, encouraged a “crusade against paper warfare.” That is, instead of having everybody sending memos to one another about why the person was wrong, they should “air their disagreements face-to-face.”

Why? Because analog does things that digital can’t, both in shaping ideas and interacting with people. Think about the total sum of information that gets transferred if you’re texting with your friend about where to get lunch versus speaking over the phone: on the phone you hear the tone of their voice, if they’re pausing for emphasis, and if they say “like” way too much. Over text you get the words themselves, but fewer of these less-linguistic signals, which can get misleading (or offensive).

Let’s review the logic:

  1. If we want to understand each other, we have to communicate clearly.
  2. If we want to communicate clearly, we have to (sometimes) talk in person.
  3. If we want to (sometimes) talk in person, we have to be interruptible.

So what is interruptibility? The uncommon ability to unglue yourself from your focus to talk with your people. As Allen says:

But there is an important prerequisite to this form of (face-to-face) communication: be interruptible. If you are too busy to listen to your team, don’t expect them to make the time to listen to each other. Yes, you might occasionally lose the deep focus you had when you were interrupted. But an in-person conversation alleviates one of the greatest drains on company resources–a lack of clarity–so it generally is a worthy trade-off.

The next question, then, is to figure out how we can still find deep focus while allowing for productive interruptions. The answer might be to start your day in a cave doing the most complex work, then become interruptible once you’re working on simpler tasks.


Hat tip: 99u

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.