OXFORD: What new torture is this? “Just resend this email to show it at the top of your inbox!”
Let me stop you there. There is no top of my inbox. My inbox is empty.
At least that was before you decided to do the digital equivalent of emptying the contents of my wastebasket all over my office. Back up slowly, if you like your typing fingers.
Not a month goes by without a monstrous email habit. Isn’t it about time we got it all figured out? Email is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and has been ubiquitous in the office for a few decades.
Still, it’s hard to think of a workplace practice that’s causing more aggravation. (Well – there’s the open plan office. But let’s not go there, metaphorically or otherwise.)
READ: Comment: Buried under a glowing inbox? It’s time to stop our problematic messaging habits
READ: Commentary: Here’s why every organization should hire a diversity manager
THE REAL PROBLEM WITH EMAILS
When I asked people on Twitter to share their hates about emails, I was struck by the fact that they were still arguing over the label. Some hated the stiff formality of “Dear Tim” and “friendship” while others insisted on it.
A few complained about people typing the message in the subject line; a lot of people wanted to see a lot more, for faster reading.
Always be considerate, but it’s a category mistake to think of email as governed by the rules of etiquette. Email is a tool to get things done, so the core issues aren’t greetings but productivity.
Emails are problematic not when they use the wrong signature, but when they waste time and attention.
The most thoughtful treatments for this problem – for example, Cal Newport’s new book A World Without Email: Reimagining Work In An Age Of Overload – rightly diagnoses systemic malaise. Part of the problem stems from the versatility of the email.
We can use email for almost anything, that’s what we do.
A savvy organization will look for tools and processes that are better suited to collaborate on specific tasks. If you’re trying to coordinate a complex project with your coworkers in a multi-purpose inbox, stress and overload is inevitable. You step into what Newport calls “the hyperactive hive mind.”
Yet, although it is a systemic problem, there is a lot that there is a lot that each individual can do to overcome it.
READ: Commentary: The scourge of email at work is much worse than you think
READ: Commentary: Our unhealthy ideas about work make our workaholic problem worse
USE THE AVAILABLE TOOLS, SET GOOD EXAMPLES
First: use the tools offered by many email programs.
If you want to send an email to a large group while making sure that only you receive the replies, do not type “PLEASE DO NOT REPLY TO ALL”. Make it impossible by putting the group in BCC.
If someone else is breaking this rule and your inbox is filled with witty but irrelevant jokes from coworkers, try “mute”.
Use “schedule to send” to make sure your email arrives during business hours, regardless of when you send it. That’s kindness, but also trains your coworkers not to expect instant responses.
Second: be the change you want to see in the world.
Try to advertise that you are “transferring Julia to BCC” to politely relieve her of her other duties in a group email. Try changing the subject line: “Arrangements for the July 8 AGM” stops being a good topic if the AGM has been moved to July 7.
If your entire email says the 4pm meeting has been postponed by 15 minutes, then I recommend a subject line “4pm meeting has been postponed by 15 minutes //” rather than “URGENT , PLEASE READ”.
Why do you act like this? Because it makes you a more pleasant person to work with. Because people will notice and maybe learn. Just as people develop terrible habits from each other like sending repeated invitations to the same Zoom URL (or is it the same?), They are also following good examples.
READ: Comment: Here’s a way to avoid zoom exhaustion – go back to the good old phone calls
READ: Comment: Thousands of emails in your inbox? You might be a digital hoarder
CLARIFY AND DECIDE
My third piece of advice is the most fundamental: clarify and decide. One hundred emails a day is a lot if you leave half of them in your inbox. Continue like this and in a month you will have 1,500.
Give it a year and you’ll ask to be allowed to file for bankruptcy by email, post the keys in the mailbox, and go.
The solution is to be more specific in your decisions. If no action is required, delete or archive. Most archived emails are easy to find.
If action is needed, brief, and obvious, take it immediately. Otherwise, archive the email and grade the project in a task manager like Trello, Remember the Milk, or even a simple text file.
If the email is for a meeting, put all the details in your calendar. But unless you want to give the whole world access to your to-do list, don’t make the mistake of using your inbox like this list.
It’s not always easy, but the alternative is worse. I recently had the opportunity to discuss my work habits with productivity trainer Todd Brown from Next Action Associates.
A hard core of about a dozen emails sitting in my Action folder, stubbornly still, was giving me headaches. Todd correctly diagnosed the problem: in each case, I hadn’t quite decided what the action was supposed to be.
The solution to email overload is to make clear decisions, quickly. It doesn’t and shouldn’t mean instant replies, but it should mean the email is no longer spilling into the inbox.
A sharp organization will find better ways to run its core business than going back to email. But it will be the same for a sharp individual.
Hear EngageRocket CEO Leong Chee Tung and HR strategist Adrian Tan discuss the merits of returning to the office on UKTN’s Heart of the Matter podcast: