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11 wonderfully horrible modern productivity anti-patterns

You are a modern web-worker. When the internet in your office goes offline, it is a major drain on your productivity. Here are some things you may do or see in your daily life that are "anti-patterns" or behaviors which are counter to productivity. Please, don't do them! If someone else does one of them, maybe send them this post (it includes solutions).

When people break these rules (especially via email) it just makes me feel like Billy Sorrels: DELETE, DELETE, DELETE.

1. Putting Screenshots into Microsoft Word Documents

You make a screenshot using the "PrtScr" key and want to share it. How do you do this? You open Microsoft Word, paste the screenshot into the document, and send it via e-mail. It's an image, not a document. Save it that way.

The Problem: Bloat and speed meaning fewer people read the message. It takes way longer to open a document than to open an image. It also takes up more space in my inbox. I mostly don't care about e-mail/inbox size these days, but when I'm on a slow connection (via phone, via internet in a foreign country) it can be an issue.

The Solution: This depends on the operating system you use. Windows users: take the screen shot, open "Paint" (or another graphics program like Gimp) and paste the screenshot there. Save it as an image. If you are going to do it often I humbly suggest Skitch or AwesomeScreenshot.

On Mac you can use these screenshot shortcuts - my favorite is command+shift+4 which allows you to take a capture of just part of the page. Of course Skitch (1.0 all the way or AwesomeScreenshot work well too.

On Linux/*BSD/Unix - You already know the answer and are just reading this because you hate it when people do this stuff to you. I know, we're awesome and everyone else sucks, right?

2. Putting Anything into a Word Document

You want to send someone a plan for something, or background on a project. You wrote it in Microsoft Word because that's where you write stuff. You want to share it with other folks, so you attach the document.

The problem: People are less likely to open the attachment. They'll definitely skim your e-mail, but may not open the attachment.

The Solution: Open Word, copy all, paste into the e-mail. If you want to track revisions use Google Docs or send the document separately. Or, write all of your documents as plain text files using a notation like Markdown and share with SparkleShare. Chances are you don't really need Word to format your text so just don't use it.

3. Sending an E-mail With the Content in an Image (and not repeated in plain text)

This seems to happen mostly with marketers or marketing wannabes, but it happens.

an e-mail with an image in it...

Most e-mail programs don't show the image. The information is not immediately conveyed to the user so they see basically nothing. This seems to happen more often in industries where people really care about "design" and layout of the text on the page and may not care as much about conveying messages effectively (which is, of course, bad design).

The problem: People are more likely to just skip over your mail and never read it. If they are reading it on a phone the download size may take too long. If they want to copy and paste an address or phone dice.

The solution: Provide two additional ways to get the content - put the essential text as text into the mail and provide a simple link to a public website where people can get the content as text.

4. Dear Fax machine: 1986 called. They want you back.

This seems to be particularly popular with real estate people, but I recently had to interact with some security folks who don't e-mail passwords because "e-mail is insecure." Instead they fax stuff. Well, guess what security team from 1986....these days, most fax machines don't actually print anything but instead save the fax as an image on a server somewhere and forward the fax as an image to a web application or an e-mail inbox.

The problem: Phone lines are dead. An extra dedicated device attached to those dead phone lines are even more dead. Faxes are not more secure than email because most faxes these days actually are just a front-end to an email system.

The solution: Scanning! "Sign" documents via web applications! Use GPG if you care about privacy/security.

5. Big Attachments

This is less of a problem if you're a webmail user like ~50% of e-mail users, but if you use a desktop client to download mail...oof.

The problem: Big attachments take forever.

The solution: Compress images to lower resolution, compress files using a compression utility like 7-zip. Or use something like gmail that offers handy options to deal with many common file types. Or use Dropbox or SparkleShare.

6. Winzip and the Mac/Windows native zip utilities

There is more to this world than Zip! Zip is kind of a turd! Formats like bzip and gzip are often smaller and faster, while 7-zip is definitely faster and smaller. Also, dear MacOS, .DS_Store should be auto-excluded from the "Compress files" contextual action. The rest of the world thanks you for not cluttering our lives.

The problem: "I can't read the (tar.gz|.bz2) file you sent, could you re-send it as a zip?" No, friend. Zip is for suckers.

The solution: Download 7-zip, use it. Or, learn some command line and install a decent shell and shell utilities like Cygwin or Gnu Win32.

7. Collaborative Editing Via E-Mail

"I edited your .doc (and changed it to .docx!) and mailed it to you." Thanks, but no thanks?

The problem: It's hard to track revisions. Even with the "compare documents" features in many document editing tools. It also causes a "can you send me the latest copy" problem. This is a waste of everyone's time.

The solution: Put it in a collaborative tool with revision control like a Wiki or a Google Document. Then the latest version is always available online and revisions are visible to everyone in the "diff" viewer.

8. Sending an important e-mail with the details only in an attachment.


I got an e-mail with a subject like:

Quick Facts Rev 2, and Exhibitor Service Kit

In the body it had a bunch of useless introductory text. "Blah blah see attachment for details about event blah blah."


But that detail was certainly in the large PDF attachment.

This inbox is not mine, but it shows why it's a problem to hide your important information in the attachment rather than the subject.

look at this inbox!

The problem: Information (and inbox) overload. People skim and prioritize e-mails. If the importance is not relayed by your subject they will not read it.

The solution: If you must use a PDF attachment, put the most important details into the subject and the body. Try using "Action required by March 24th" in the subject to let people know "oh, I should actually read this."

9. Subjects that don't describe the email

I just got an e-mail "sorry for the spam." It's true the person had been emailing me a bunch, but I'd rather there were descriptive, unique subjects on the group of emails than something like "sorry for the spam."

The problem: Later on this person will likely want to draw upon the conversation and go searching for it. She'll search her inbox for the keywords in the body of the mail and maybe her search tools will find it, but she'll skim the search results and skip right past that subject.

The solution: Use better subjects. Seriously.

10. Saying "it's broken"

This is perhaps one of the most annoying things about working with technology is getting an email saying "X is broken." Broken is a statement of perspective. You expect a certain behavior and you're getting a different behavior. My favorite example: "Logging in to the intranet is broken." I mean, that's even pretty close to the reality by saying that the login feature is broken. But what was the real situation? After repeated offers to do support via the phone and skype screenshare, this person finally did a screenshare.
1. He used the password reset feature which automatically logged in to the site
2. He entered his new password into the new password field
3. Then he clicked log out
4. Then, he clicked login, entered his username and his new password and the login failed.
5. And he said "See? Broken."

One small problem back between steps 2 and 3: he never clicked to save the new password.

The problem: Your "expected behavior" may not be how the system was designed. Leaving out the details of what you did and what you expect makes it a guessing game and requires me to say "What did you expect? What happened?"

The solution: Save us both the round-trip of that email. State clearly what you did, what you expected, what happened and maybe include a screenshot and a video. Note that in most cases "It's broken" with a screenshot is not enough. Describe it in both the image and text.

11. Sending something right before the call

I wish I had a dollar for every time I got a report or proposal or something right before the call where we were supposed to discuss it. The deadline for sending something that we're going to discuss is at least 24 hours before the call.

The problem: People are busy. While the call may feel like a deadline, chances are good that people invited to a call will be on another call right before the current one, so even if you send something 5 minutes or an hour in advance they may not be able to prepare.

The answer: Set an internal deadline for the document of 24 hours before the call. And stick to it. If the item you are sharing is a Google Doc or a web page then someone can review it at any point up to the call and maybe you can sneak in more fixes, but please don't send the first draft right before the call.

In short

I love you all very much. I'm ranting right now because I feel passionately about these things. I hope you will take it in stride, learn, get better, and be nice to your local computer man:

People Involved: