Hercules And The Hydra


According to the Greek legend, as one of his Twelve Labors, Hercules had to kill the Hydra -- a nine-headed sea serpent. Not much of a problem for the legendary hero, except for one catch: when he cut off one of the heads, two would grow back. So how to defeat the monster?

Hercules took a different approach. After cutting off each head (or mashing them with his club, depending on the version of the myth you prefer), his nephew, Iolaus, burned the stump of each neck to cauterize it and prevent the new heads from growing back.

You may not be mistaken for Hercules (which isn't a bad thing, really, unless you like wearing a lionskin loincloth to work -- and that's a bit risky, even on Casual Fridays in Silicon Valley), but you have your own Hydra to face: email.

That overflowing email inbox. Cut off one head -- i.e., answer an email -- and two messages come back. No matter how quickly you respond, no matter how thoroughly you answer the question, you just can't get to the bottom of your inbox. Like Hercules, you need a different approach. Simply answering your emails is not the answer.

The truth is, you're sowing the seeds of your own electronic demise by answering so quickly. You're creating more email. (Blogger Robert Scoble of the Scobleizer estimates  that each email he answers generates 1.5 to 2 emails in return.)  People know that they'll get an immediate response from you, so they rely on you for more than they should. They don't develop the tools to become self-reliant because you make it too easy for them to rely upon you for answers.

The contact info for your software supplier? Why look it up, when they can ask you. Small-scale purchasing decisions that they have the authority to make? Don't run the risk of goofing up -- ask you to evaluate the decision and approve it.

You need to stop answering your emails as they come in. Instead, check your inbox twice a day. You'll find that when people know you won't provide an immediate response, they somehow find ways to get their jobs done without you.

Dan Russell, a senior manager at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, switched to a twice a day schedule and cut his email processing time in half, to less than two hours a day.

Similarly, Jeremy Burton, an executive vice president at Veritas software, was choking on 400 messages a day, many from his own department. He instituted email-free Fridays, with the result that his inbox is now only half as full, because workers are connecting face-to-face. (Employess are still allowed to email customers or other parts of the company if they have to.)

Worried that you'll miss something really important? Think about this: if it's really important -- the building is on fire, your biggest customer just went bankrupt, a plague of locusts just flew in through the third-floor window -- people will find you, somehow. They won't rely on just an email.

According to the legend, the Hydra had one immortal head that couldn't be killed. Hercules cut it off anyway and buried it under an enormous rock by the side of the road. Your new approach won't kill email completely. But at least you can go onto your other Labors.

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