Taming the E–mail Monster

Originally published on Oct. 21, 2010. Revised on Feb. 11, 2012, to add items 12 and 13.

I can still remember a time when the IT Director where I worked issued an edict stating that no further external memoranda would leave our department without his approval.

A statement like this sounds terribly ancient to us today, at least partially because e-mail and other forms of electronic communication have become so common that it is hard to imagine a time when the current overwhelming flow of written text could have been staunched by such a simple, peremptory command.

Almost everyone I talk to today is suffering from e-mail overload to one degree or another: I know it’s gotten bad when people tell me that they are pleasantly surprised to see that I actually respond to their e-mails within a few hours!

It doesn’t have to be that way. The genie can be put back in the bottle, and e-mail can once again become a willing helpmeet, rather than a rampaging monster. All it takes is the discipline to follow the steps below.

Note that these tips involve all the various pieces of the e-mail process. My experience has been that it is only through this sort of systems thinking that the problem can be addressed. Local solutions (deleting everything in your inbox at the end of the week, for example) may bring temporary relief to one user in the short run, but only adds to the overall problem in the larger view.

So here they are — 15 steps to stopping the e-mail madness!

1. If you regularly receive e-mail that is of no interest to you, then let the sender know!

We sometimes fail to take this simple step for fear of offending the sender, or for lack of time to make the request, but in the long run it is much more offensive (and time-consuming!) to delete e-mails without reading them than it is to ask the sender to remove you from a distribution list.

2. Don’t send an e-mail too long to be entirely visible on a single screen.

If it’s longer than this, then there’s a good chance that it won’t be read in its entirety. And even if it is, there’s a good chance it won’t be effectively understood. Use some other form of communication instead if you have that much material to convey.

3. Never send an e-mail without taking a few seconds to proofread it.

If it takes more than a few seconds to proofread, then it’s probably too long anyway (see item 2). And if you don’t think the e-mail is important enough to proofread, then odds are your potential readers will get the message that it’s not important enough for them to actually read.

An important corollary is to always turn on your spelling checker, and help it learn valid words that it may not initially recognize. Taken together, these steps will help to avoid e-mails going out with obvious spelling errors that make your missive look more like a hastily assembled ransom note than a business communication worthy of the recipient’s attention.

4. Be selective about your target audience.

Before hitting the send button, make sure you’re not sending the e-mail to a longer list than is really necessary. Not only will you avoid wasting people’s time, the people you do send it to will be more likely to read it and respond productively if they can see that they’re part of a select few recipients.

An important corollary of this rule, of course, is to never hit “Reply to All” if you can more productively limit your response to a smaller audience.

5. Carefully distinguish between those who should be recipients vs. those who only need to be copied.

Be aware that some people deal with their inbox by ignoring e-mails on which they’re only copied. So be sure to include any folks from whom you expect some action in the primary addressee list, and cc those who may be interested but don’t have a definite need to know. Making this distinction will also avoid potential confusion about who is actually expected to take some action as the result of your note.

6. Avoid a scolding or hostile tone in your e-mails.

You may have every right to be mad. Your recipient may have been ignoring your e-mails for over a week. They may be delinquent in completing an important action. They may have done something that you consider completely idiotic and misguided.

None of this matters. If you have this sort of information and emotion to convey, then it should be done face-to-face, or over the phone. Trying to scold people via e-mail will only make them less likely to read and respond to your e-mails in the future. It’s like telling your wayward dog to “Come!” while waving a rolled-up newspaper — your mixed message is not likely to have the desired effect.

7. If you’ve discovered a contentious issue, and failed to resolve it in the first couple of rounds of e-mails and replies, then schedule a meeting for further discussion.

Continuing to use e-mail to address the issue at that point is only likely to drive the issue underground (creating a festering sore that will worsen over time), or further polarize your audience, making the issue even less amenable to an amicable future resolution.

8. Minimize use of e-mail to provide information of enduring interest.

Information that people will want to refer to later should be stored on a Web site or wiki or some other served information repository. The initial announcement of the availability of such information should be brief and contain a link to the ongoing location of the information.

Such practices avoid the waste of having all the recipients separately figuring out how to store the information for later reference, and ensures that all consumers of the information are always referring to the latest version of the information.

9. Choose a system for managing your incoming mail and implement it consistently.

There doesn’t seem to be any one system that works for everyone. Some people keep a separate archive, with folders organized by topic, for storing e-mails they may later want to reference. Others keep all their e-mail forever in one big folder, trusting to searching, sorting and filtering tools to find a note of interest when necessary. Some establish a sophisticated set of automated rules to help them sort and filter their incoming mail. Any of these systems can work effectively, so long as it matches your work style, and so long as you use it consistently.

But whatever you do, adopt some sort of system. Letting the e-mail pile up without reading or responding to it, then whining about how much e-mail you get, is just lame.

10. Never end your day with unread e-mail.

Yes, I know this sounds impossible for some of you. And there will be days when this will be unrealistic. But as a general rule, this is a critical discipline. If you’ve got 10 e-mails you can’t find time to read today, then you’re likely to have 20 tomorrow, and so on. Before long, perhaps while you’re hosting an online meeting, your coworkers will see the hundreds of unread e-mails in your inbox and will realize that sending you further e-mail is likely to be a pointless effort. This may seem like a good thing, until you realize that they are now going around you and over your head in order to get some needed action.

11. Avoid “touching” any given e-mail more than once.

If you are going to have any hope of dealing with all that e-mail, then you will need to find a way to do so efficiently. And the most important rule here is that, once you look at an e-mail, you should read it and decide what to do with it before moving on to anything else.

In many or most cases, you should be able to simply delete the e-mail after reading it. In many other cases, you can dash off a brief reply, or forward it to someone else, and then delete the e-mail.

Other e-mails may require more complex analysis or action, and may need to wait until later. Of course, if you’ve deleted the others, then leaving these e-mails in your inbox until you have time to deal with them is a low-cost option. Some people may prefer more complex systems for sorting and filing these, or transferring them to some sort of task manager. Again, there are many viable options: you just need to find one that works for you and apply it consistently.

(By the way, smart phones seem to exacerbate this problem, since people frequently make time to check their inbox using such devices, but often put off dealing with their e-mails until they can get back to their full-size screens and keyboards.)

12. Wait to reply.

Despite the advice above, there are times when it is better to read a message now but wait until later to respond to it.

First, if you are catching up on your incoming mail, then you should generally wait to reply to a message until you have read following ones, to see what others may have already contributed: no sense in firing off a reply to an earlier message if the conversation has already progressed beyond that point. Others may even have resolved the issue without your assistance, which would be the best-case scenario, since the most efficient email is the one you never had to send, and the one others never had to read.

Second, if you don’t yet have a definitive response, it may be better to take time to collect further information, or simply collect your thoughts, or let others reply, before sending your own words into the ether.

Finally, if you’re in a position of authority and a decision is called for, you may want to wait to let others weigh in with information and opinions before you respond, since your response may be viewed as the final word on the subject and so may forestall further discussion.

13. Turn off instant notifications of new mail.

I suppose there must have been a moment in the history of the medium when the arrival of a new e-mail message was so exciting that you couldn’t bear to wait one second before learning of its presence in your inbox. I think it’s safe to say that this moment has now passed. If you’re still hearing little noises, or seeing little pop-ups, every time you receive a new message, then take a few minutes right now to find the option to turn it off. You will make more efficient use of your time if you pick the moment when you want to read new mail, rather than having the arrival of every message interrupt your train of thought while you’re trying to focus on something else.

14. Leverage E-Mail’s many strengths.

There are lots of things e-mail is not very good at. And it can certainly turn on you, if you’re not careful. But e-mail can be a great productivity enhancer when used correctly. It’s particularly good for carrying on multiple concurrent, asynchronous conversations, for maintaining a clear record of ongoing written dialogues, and for quickly conveying written news as it becomes available.

15. Avoid being boring.

This is a good recommendation for all written business communications, but is certainly applicable to e-mail. If you want people to read what you have written, then it helps to make it interesting. Your subject matter will not always have people on the edge of their seats, but with a little effort you can use humor, enthusiasm and punchy, direct language to maximize interest levels in your audience. I don’t expect people to save all of my e-mails and mount them on the walls of their cubicles, but I know some of my electronic missives that have achieved that honor, and it’s always a worthy goal to shoot for.

February 11, 2012

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