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Posted on: Friday, 09 July 2010 by Rajiv Popat

How often have you witnessed two or more individuals disagree over something and battle it out over email?

Come on. You have seen the thirty-five email long mail thread where two big Grizzly Bears of your organization were fighting with each other over a technical disagreement. Haven't you? Huh?

If you've been in the business of building software long enough I bet you have been a part of at-least one or more of these email trails. At more than one point of time in my life,  I have been involved with quite a few of these and have specially devised twitter hash tags which can be used to rescue and bail me out of some of these 'yes but' discussions and arguments.

The deal is fairly simple. If it's a productive, objective discussion where the best solution is bound to win and it helps you learn something new, battle it out. Argue. Discuss. Learn. Strain yourself defending your strong opinions weakly held.

At the first indication of things turning personal, the sign of a meaningless flame war, the sign of bozoism or the sign of a 'yes but' discussion, back out. The battle is just not worth fighting.

Scott Hanselman's post on keystroke worthiness, which is inspired out of the original classic counting your keystrokes, by Jon Udell, is not a post which addresses this topic directly but provides some useful advice if you are just about to hit that reply to all button and respond to an email which is soon going to turn into a never ending yes-but discussion. The basic idea is simple. You have a finite number of keystrokes that you can use in your entire life. Scott explains:

Let break it down. I'm 36 and change. I'll live to be 80, let's say, and I can type 100 words a minute (but 50 of that is errors and the backspace key) so let's say 50WPM. If I type for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for the next 44 years, that means there are 198M keystrokes left in my hands. Max. Period. And that's generous; it's likely 10% of that.

5.1CPW * 50WPM * 60m/hr * 6hr/s a day * 5 days/wk * 50 wks/year * 44yrs = 1,009,800,000 keystrokes left in your hands.

Let's assume the average length of an English word is 5, plus a space, so six. That's a ceiling of 168M more words I can type in my lifetime. Nothing I can do, short of dictation, or some new brain invention is going to create more keystrokes. I am I/O bound by my hands. The keystrokes they contain are finite. And this assuming my hands don't give out.

Drink that in. OK. So now, next time someone emails you ask yourself "is emailing this person back the best use of my remaining keystrokes?" That includes both 1:1 and 1:many emails. You could even add a little hubris to it and say: "Does this person deserve the gift of my keystrokes?"

If you are working with human beings, by now you probably already understand the fact of life: shit happens. While it is tempting to respond to every flame mail, every nasty comment and every heating discussion, remembering that your keystrokes are finite is your first step towards using them in places where they can have the biggest impact.

Go ahead, back out. Turn the heating mail trail into a objective research driven blog post.

Go on and Present your facts and findings and give the whole wide world the gift of your keystrokes. Chances are, that this is where your keystrokes will make a much wider impact on people who want to learn. Folks who want to participate and contribute.

Chances are that this is also how you will avoid useless stress, learn something new, move on and get stronger to fight much more meaningful battles that matter. After all, you have a limited number of keystrokes. Don't waste them on situations or mail trails which are not worthy of the gift of your keystrokes. Use your keystrokes wisely. 

I wish you good luck.