If you want to know what people value most, look at which email subject lines get the fastest replies from them. You’ll find that issues you consider priorities aren’t valued equally by others, and vice versa, which makes one-size-fits-all policies like “check email twice a day” or “turn off email notifications” awkward to implement company-wide.
Regardless of the medium, one person’s communication is another person’s distraction. So how do you get anything done in a culture where expectations for email turnaround are frustratingly vague? How do you deal with your own email overload?
Uncommon Sense on Email Productivity
Take responsibility for your communication. The watchword here is “communication,” not “email.” Just because a discussion or request was initiated via email doesn’t mean it has to continue via that channel. Rediscover the forgotten power of sneakernet.
If Donna hasn’t emailed you the PDF you requested from her via email two days ago, and the delay is causing you a problem, then it doesn’t really matter if she’s being lackadaisical. Sure, it could’ve been sent within 60 seconds of first seeing the request, but if she’s already demonstrated that the simplicity of the task isn’t obvious, why torture yourself by sending yet another email that’s sure to be ignored? Take 60 of your own seconds, walk over and ask her to email the document. Or better yet…
Pick up the phone. Yes, the telephone is more disruptive than email, and it lacks a paper trail, but there are numerous advantages to replying to an email via phone.
- You can get answers to several questions in a couple of minutes that might take a couple of days if the same questions and answers were transacted over email.
- People are generally more self-conscious about their writing, and tend to overload their messages to preempt every contingency. Some people consider short emails “rude,” and feel the need to make their own messages long to appear appropriately substantive. Verbal contact bypasses the need to fill messages with obligatory verbiage.
- You can clarify issues in real time and reduce email to a supplemental role. Instead of writing a five-paragraph email with an attached spreadsheet, you can spend one minute on the phone summarizing the point of the spreadsheet you’re about to send, and then just send it with a one- or two-sentence annotation. The less people have to read, the less likely they are to procrastinate around reading it.
- Humans are evolved to respond to verbal cues with heightened urgency, and are more attentive and responsive to verbal requests than written ones. Most people feel compelled to answer phone and in-person questions immediately, while email gives them the apparent luxury to answer at their discretion.
Contact by “phone” in this context means real-time discussion, not voicemail, which triggers the same procrastination patterns as email.
Set new filters and unsubscribe daily. If you delete the same type of email more than twice, it’s tempting to keep deleting them, or worse, archiving them. Instead of sweeping junk mail under the rug, get in the habit of spending a few more seconds unsubscribing from lists you’re no longer interested in, or setting new filters aggressively. By “aggressively,” I mean that you shouldn’t wait until a repetitive message reaches an arbitrary threshold of annoyance, but should be dealt with the moment you see it as a pattern. See if you can create at least one new filter every time you process your email.
Filtering and unsubscribing not only chips away at the overall size of your inbox over time, but trains you to become more conscious of the clutter you’re allowing into your life. Part of achieving Inbox Zero is liquidating as many nonessential inputs as possible on the front end, before they become recurring distractions.
Create real-time mobile alerts for VIP messages. One of the reasons employees resist batch processing email is the very reasonable fear of missing a critical message from a customer, manager or employer. Unfortunately, this fear creates an artificial need to constantly check email, and when an important email isn’t found, whatever is in the inbox suddenly becomes important by virtue of its appearance.
To minimize task switching overhead, email sessions should be as infrequent as possible. If you define ahead of time which senders’ messages would be considered urgent, you can create filters that forward those messages’ subject lines to your cell phone as texts. When you get an alert on your phone, you can look at the sender and subject, and determine if the message justifies going into your desktop inbox to read the full message. This strategy allows you to keep your email client closed between processing sessions.
Why not just use your email-enabled phone to just get the whole message? Limiting the message to its subject line is a pattern interrupt that forces you to reevaluate the messages’ urgency. You won’t get sucked into reading the whole email if it the subject line indicates that it can wait.
Forwarding emails as text messages is simple if you know the email address formatting of your carrier. The general format is email@example.com, but the specific formatting varies — for instance, my carrier, Sprint, uses firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full list of US carriers and additional instructions, see my earlier email to text message post on Tools for Thought.
In a world where modern technology makes it easier than ever to send minutiae to anyone and everyone, we should make it a priority to avoid wasting other people’s time, and to prevent them from wasting ours. Email productivity requires thinking beyond email, and focusing on efficient and effective communication, whatever the medium.
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