A Practical Guide To Corporate Survival


Email: Inbox Management

The internet is constantly changing and evolving, with companies and technologies rising to dominance only to be eclipsed and forgotten faster than you can say "stock market bubble." AOL bullied their way to dominance of the dial-up era via a junk mail marketing campaign, only to be replaced by portals like Yahoo and Lycos, who in turn fell before Google, Amazon and Facebook.

But through all this upheaval, one technology remains consistent: email. In fact, email predates even the internet itself. Like the paperclip and the bicycle, email endures largely unchanged because it does what it's supposed to do so efficiently it can't be materially improved upon.

Internet fads come and go, but email remains neither in nor out of fashion, like the Levi 501s of digital communication. In fact, email is so ubiquitous that most other systems will send you email notifications until you figure out how to turn them off. There's an impressively narcissistic myopia in creating a proprietary communication system which sends its users an email to remind them to come check their messages.

Whether you're the sole proprietor of a small business or a cog in a multinational conglomerate, email is the way work gets done, both real work and busywork. The average office worker receives 120 emails a day, covering everything from critical customer issues to agenda updates for a meeting you weren’t invited to. I sent a bunch of emails, and now you're reading this article. You’ve probably even had a face-to-face conversation with somebody, and at the end of it they said “Send me an email.” Like it or not, email isn't going away, so you might as well get better at it. First, how do you deal with those 120 emails a day?

Inbox Zero

You may have heard of Inbox Zero. You may have even tried to implement it, and now some of your emails are lost in folders that made sense at the time, while everything else is in your inbox.

Inbox Zero is, by its own definition, a "rigorous approach to email management" wherein the goal is to maintain an empty inbox at all times. And by rigourous, they mean labour intensive. All email is supposed to be sorted or deleted immediately, which is an admirably futile attempt to manage busywork by creating a different kind of busywork.

This system has two obvious drawbacks: 1) sorting through all your old mail and 2) sorting through all your new mail. It also has a third, less obvious side-effect: emptying your inbox empties one of your best excuses.

It's perfectly understandable if something slips through the cracks when your inbox has hundreds of unread emails, less so when you have four. A well-ordered inbox shows that you have a lot of spare time to waste filing email. An inbox with thousands of unread emails shows that you're overworked and don't have time to even read everything, never mind sort it.

Inbox 3000: The Way of the Future

Inbox 3000 is the exact opposite: thousands of emails in your inbox, unsorted and unordered, but never lost. Where Inbox Zero requires incredible rigour, Inbox 3000 requires only an acceptance of what is. Email is a river with no beginning and no end, flowing ceaselessly toward some distant sea. Where Inbox Zero is an attempt to divert and contain this torrent in a collection of ponds and pools, Inbox 3000 merely involves floating on the surface of the river, dipping out what you want without trying to dam the flow. If you need to find something that already flowed off the bottom of your screen, you need only paddle downstream a ways and there it'll be.

Inbox 3000 is the system most people use without even knowing it. Like email itself, its simplicity and elegance makes it timeless. While anyone attempting to implement Inbox Zero is doomed to fall off the wagon occasionally (if not permanently), Inbox 3000 is the languid stream they inevitably fall into.

Don't waste your time trying to put every potentially important email in the correct folder, leave the river to its course and let your email's search function do the work. This is doubly true if you use Gmail. Google was a search engine before it was a company. No matter how well thought out your filing system and how consistently you adhere to it, you will never match the finding expertise of the most powerful search tool in the history of mankind.

Competitive Analysis

Inbox Zero   Inbox 3000
• complicated   • simple
• an unnatural attempt to impose order on the chaos of the universe   • so natural you're already doing it
• requires constant vigilance   • requires literally no effort
• outdated process of treating email like paper files   • sexy, modern
• only as efficient as your filing system makes it   • efficiency determined by the search technology, which is improving all the time

Maintaining Inbox 3000

Inbox 3000 is defined not by what you do, but by what you don't do: don't sort it, don't worry about it, and above all don't delete it. Sure, you can clear out corporate spam and reply-all chains, but you should never delete real email. Email isn't just a communication tool, it's also a record of everything you’ve said and everything that’s been said to you.

When I worked in tech support, a manageable backlog was considered to be about 20-25 open tickets. Since we were understaffed, mine was usually above 30 and sometimes approached 40. I reached out to my boss, and he told me that if I was overloaded, I should email him a list of tickets that could be easily reassigned, along with a note about what needed to be done next on each one. So I spent about an hour going through all my tickets to compile the list and writing up next steps, and sent it off.

A week later my backlog was as high as it ever was, because nothing had been reassigned. My boss asked me why I was still overloaded. Since I hadn’t deleted anything I was able to forward him the email where he'd told me to contact him, as well as the one I’d sent listing all the tickets for him to reassign, which he had not read. Email is evidence, and you should take the same kind of care to preserve it as the police do. Think of it as defensive blackmail--better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Ryan Guenther
Jargon and Buzzwords

We've all sat through a quarterly update where the VP of Whatever rattled off a bunch of buzzwords and wondered "Does any of this mean anything? Does the person saying this think it means anything?" The short answer is "No it doesn't, but yes they do."

Scientists and doctors use words normal people don't know because they work with things normal people don't understand. Business people use jargon to disguise the fact that what they do is incredibly stupid and they, themselves, don't understand. Not only do words like actionable, stakeholdering and bio-break not have a clearly defined meaning, they are in fact new names for things that already have well-understood names. Where technical jargon is used to convey more information in fewer words, business jargon exists to make something simple sound more complicated--and thus more important--than it actually is.

Technical Jargon

Jargon Meaning
Programmers set mutexes to handle concurrency issues in multi-threaded processes. Programmers set mutexes to handle concurrency issues in multi-threaded processes.
Physicists look for the broadening of the quasiparticle peak resulting from their finite lifetime when analyzing the photoemission spectrum of a Fermi liquid. Physicists look for the broadening of the quasiparticle peak resulting from their finite lifetime when analyzing the photoemission spectrum of a Fermi liquid.


Business Jargon

Jargon Meaning
We need granular sign-off from the stakeholders on all deliverables by end of day. Talk to Kim and Dave before 5:00.
Repurposing existing assets to target new verticals will generate follow-on services revenue to integrate with legacy third-party workflows. Our product won't work for new customers but we can charge them to make it work.
While conceptually intriguing, we'd need to reprioritize resource allocation to facilitate actionability. Fuck you.
Invitees to this knowledge transfer session have been affected by a resource action. If you're in this meeting, you're fired.
We've recontextualized our fiduciary practices to obviate regulatory oversight. This is fraud. We're committing fraud.

The purpose of business jargon is to create the illusion of a separate caste which excludes the uninitiated. They need everyone to believe that being an executive requires special skills just like being a lawyer or doctor, to justify the wage disparity with people who do actual work. Business jargon is a form of meta-communication that says "I am part of the business class."  The words themselves may be meaningless, but the proper use of the words is incredibly powerful. Using the latest buzzwords shows that you're reading the right reports and attending the right meetings. Like citizens under the emperor with no clothes, being successful in business requires speaking the same kind of nonsense as everybody else so you can all pretend it's not nonsense.

Verbiage is an unnecessary word that just means 'words,' and thus 'unnecessary verbiage' is recursively redundant jargon.

Fight Stupid With Stupid

Obviously, learning to "properly" use business jargon would be an enormous waste of time and mental energy. The next best thing is to use the jargon you do know and mix in made-up pseudojargon--since everybody's just repeating what they hear everybody else say, if you use words that sound like jargon, they'll assume it's jargon, because it is. And since real jargon is stupid, making up pseudojargon is fairly simple.

First Level Jargon: Create your own acronyms.

Business is rife with three letter acronyms (TLAs), most of which are just short-forms of common phrases. End Of Day becomes EOD, Close Of Business becomes COB, and both just mean "today". There's no reason you can't start using your own TLAs for similar concepts. Tomorrow becomes First Thing Tomorrow, or FTT. Lunch becomes Mid-Day Meal, or MDM. Email becomes Sent Via Email, SVE.

The great thing about acronyms is that the business world is already riddled with duplicates (everywhere I've worked has had a different ACP, for example) so people are already used to not understanding an acronym. Use them confidently in the flow of a sentence and they'll assume you're better at business than they are. Just be prepared to tell people what the acronym stands for, because they may want to start using it themselves. If you start describing dumb decisions as BTL (Bad Thought Leadership) you'd better be prepared to tell people it means Big Time Learning without any hesitation.


Acronym Public Meaning Actual Meaning
LOA List of Acronyms Lies of Admission
WMI With Maximum Importance Wanking Motion Implied
SFA Senior Field Administrator Stupid Fucking Asshole
SNW Synchronous Notification Workspace Separate Netflix Window
HPF High Priority Function Hell Phreezes First

Second Level Jargon: Verbing nouns and nouning verbs

Most jargon is just mis-using existing language. Announce is a verb, announcement is the correct noun form, announceable should be an adjective but is used as a noun in business jargon. EG: "This release gives us some nice announceables."

To create your own level 2 jargon, take an existing word, like idea. Look up a known but less used synonym, like notion. Then, either use it directly as a verb ("Let me notion that and get back to you") or convert it to a verb ("Take some time to notionate"). As a stretch goal, re-noun the verbed noun: notionizements. EG: "These notionizements could become announceables."

Third Level Jargon: Negate the opposite

For truly deep jargon, don't just say what you mean in a stupider way, say the opposite and add a negative prefix. Disintermediate is real jargon that means to contact directly, but rather than ending up with something lame like junctionize they took the opposite of direct (intermediary), verbed it (intermediate), and then added the prefix dis. Instead of saying problem solving, take the opposite (obstacle), verb it (obstacate), then add a negative prefix to create deobstacate. EG: "Successful lobbying can modernize regulations to deobstacate outsourcing activities."

Fourth Level Jargon: Total nonsense

A lot of jargon is real words with inappropriate prefixes and suffixes. For truly impenetrable jargon, create words that are entirely made up of prefixes and suffixes with no root: redisimalize, unperiliate, cointermentization, etc. A useful mnemonic to remember for creating nonsense words is "indecipherable": it's made up of two prefixes, one suffix and the Latin word for nothing.

Fourth level words should only be spoken, never written down, as the victim of your pseudojargon can't be allowed the time to analyze it, or even worse google it, and realize that it's actually nonsense.

Caveat: Establishing dominance is a fine line. The right amount of pseudojargon will create confusion about whether you're actually better at business, too much and they may suspect you're mocking them and jargon itself (because you are). This is ok if you're dealing with an equal or subordinate, but can be dangerous when talking to a superior. Bad bosses love jargon for the same reason they love metrics: it lets them trick themselves and others into believing they understand more than they do.

Bad bosses also feel threatened by competence, because deep down they know it's all a sham. You should be very selective when using pseudojargon with a bad boss, because it could backfire both if they believe you're out-jargoning them or if they realize you're mocking them. As a rule of thumb, the highest level of pseudojargon you can safely use is as follows: level one with bosses, level two with colleagues, level three with subordinates or outside contractors, and level four only with friends or people you genuinely dislike.

Business Haiku

The gift of jargon
From that which is understood

Ryan Guenther
Glossary of common job posting terms and what they mean
  • Fast-paced:  They're understaffed, and the person who should be training you is the person you'd be replacing.
  • High pressure:  They know they're understaffed and aren't planning to do anything about it.
  • Team player:  You'll be blamed if you report unethical behavior.
  • Office culture (including fun social things the staff does together):  Your boss will be younger than you.
  • Exciting:  Nobody applied the first time the job was posted.
  • Free snacks:  You'll be expected to work unpaid overtime and may not have time for breaks.
  • Work/life balance:  Your boss will harass you to take time off and for being behind on your work, sometimes in the same email.
  • Like a family:  The kind of family where the dad hits on his daughter's friends.
  • Must work well independently and as part of a team:  Your potential boss doesn't know what the job actually is and is just trying to fill space to hide that fact.
  • Fluent in English:  White.
  • Go-getter:  Male.
  • Demonstrate the Company's Core Values:  They've been sued for violating employment law.
  • Committed to sustainability:  There's a bike rack next to where the owner parks his Range Rover.
  • Ability to prioritize:  Part of your job won't really matter. Which part? The answer may surprise you.
  • Dog friendly: The owner has a dog and the company has no HR policies.
Ryan Guenther