Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that the venerable grandfather of internet communications is very much alive and kicking, nearly 50 years after they were invented, although the first email sent in 1971 has sadly been lost to the great trash can in the sky 🙁
Email is more popular (needs citation), trusted (needs citation) and indispensable (needs citation) than all the challenger technologies (needs citation). OK you get the point, the usefulness and/or annoyance value of email are very much in the eye of the beholder. In reality they can be frustrating, distracting and stress-inducing if not managed effectively; they can also expose unwary readers to unsolicited spam, fraud and malware. However, despite new technologies, mobile devices and some changing generational habits the volume of email traffic continues to grow, estimated worldwide at 269 billion per day in 2017 (Radicati Group). These statistics also tell us that the average office worker receives 121 and sends out 40 business emails a day – that sounds about right for me, allowing for peaks and troughs, what about you?
Top tips for dealing with email
A review of 40 academic studies by Dr. Emma Russell of Kingston Business School, says Victoria Allen, has identified some key strategies to stop you drowning in email;
Deal with or otherwise clear email as and when you check it
I have been doing this for many years, both with personal mail and at work, and it has proven particularly valuable to keep on top of work placements with different clients. My triage categories are;
- Deal with urgent mail immediately; and also counter-intuitively if you can skim-read and identity junk mail, anything that does not need any further attention, these can be thrown away immediately. It’s very liberating!
- Keep emails that need some more time and some action, maybe move into an ‘Action’ folder (so clear out the Inbox itself). However, this approach needs some discipline to ensure that you revisit actionable items regularly or at set times during the day or week so that things keep moving along. Again you should aim to clear action items down to zero, not let this buffer store become a new proxy inbox!
- ‘File’ less urgent, possibly useful information (with attachments) and background reading for sometime/never. This is the most revealing category in my experience, the stuff that might be of interest later, if stored semi-permanently and assuming you can find it again, if and when you have time and maybe the world has stopped turning…
(Ed. triage does not specifically relate to 3 categories or outcomes, it comes from the French verb ‘trier’ to separate, select or sift)
Be disciplined about how often you check emails; don’t be tempted to respond to every new email or pressing alert.
The suggestion in this review is to check your inbox every 45 minutes.
I not sure about being so prescriptive, but then it depends on how much mail you get and how you manage your time and competing clamorous calls on your attention. From personal experience I prefer to ‘do’ email in smaller regular batches, keep on top of things, but don’t get obsessed (or even obsessive-compulsive) so that you feel the need to check every 30 seconds and jump on each and every incoming message like it’s the word of God. The same applies to more ‘instant’ messaging, so called, which is rarely as important as the sender/post-er/text-er thinks it is! A simple trick is to switch off the alerts, mute the ping, hide the mail application that might otherwise disturb your equilibrium…I use that word advisedly, be balanced and objective.
Delay sending messages if out of hours, to be considerate to colleagues and water babies*
*I prefer the approach of Mrs. Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By, not her harder-edged sister Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did. Most companies either have an informal cultural norm when it comes to use of email (amongst other things), if not a code of conduct and a formal policy on what, how, when to write. I prefer to apply my own rules of netiquette; until this point unstated:
- Be mindful. Think, ‘why am I sending this email?’ – the next section refers
- Be nice. A bit like the Google company motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ but in a more reserved British way
- Be appropriate. That is, find the right tone of voice, language and structure, a bit of grammar goes a long way, use jargon and acronyms sparingly IMHO!
- Be ethical. Like your mum used to say, politeness doesn’t cost you anything, and remember when you fire off that heated email – called a flame – it can live for ever in cyberspace and be shared with all your friends or colleagues in minutes
- Be-Done-By-As-You-Did 🙂
Be purposeful and clear about why you are sending emails
As above this is another example of netiquette and good practice, both in making sure each email is valuable to you as the sender (or reply-er/forward-er), and moreover think first whether email is the right medium and communication technology to use for this purpose and audience?
Here are some examples or some or my personal bugbears…that’s not to say I don’t sometimes transgress!
- Would you send a letter saying, ‘Time for coffee?’ Maybe some form or instant messaging (IM) would be better, or even a phone/video call or personal visit!
- Why are you cc’ing dozens of colleagues? Do they really need to be involved in a multiway email conversation that creates an undecipherable chain? Try working with a smaller group of active participants by email or offline and only include a wider group for information when the background chatter and decision-making has been done. Long lists of questions in an email to lots of people seldom ends well.
- If you can’t physically get together with colleagues, think about technologies that simulate or otherwise facilitate a real world experience, such as collaboration tools, discussion groups, voice and video conferences etc. As an aside, humans have evolved over millions of years to communicate effectively in small face-to-face groups. Writing stuff down being a relatively new skill that we are learning as a species – you can probably do the other stuff better and quicker.
- Think carefully before using an email as a proxy audit trail and the only permanent record of a key decision, statement of fact, or some important business-to-business transaction. For the latter you can always flag an email with a ‘Read receipt’ or ask for acknowledgement. This is where cc* can be confusing, do you want the recipient to read the email and take part in a conversation or be merely a passive receiver? There isn’t a real world equivalent to this email practise.
(*Ed. originally a physical carbon copy, now more likely to be a courtesy copy. And why would you ever send a blind courtesy copy – bcc – you humans are so strange and contrary)
Email-geddon or email-topia?
On a more positive note the review corrects some commonly-held myths about emails. They can, with a little thought and common sense;
- Help to inform and engage with colleagues, not just used be used to cover your back
- Provide a means to manage effective communication and do real work, so not simply a distraction and necessary evil
- Be controllable, by you, as an adaptable tool for doing business
In a constant storm of communication and noise in your real and virtual worlds, email can provide a calm and stable refuge. Not drowning but waving!
For more about the history and mechanics of Email, see the dedicated Email IT element.
I hope you found this article interesting? Please let me know your tips and tricks for managing email, or any communication or messaging challenge that you face.
(c) 2018 IT elementary school Ltd.