Escape From the Email Monster
ASSOCIATIONS NOW, March 2009 , Feature
|Summary: For many of us, email is a waking nightmare. But by breaking a few bad habits and using alternative forms of communication wisely, we can put the email monster to sleep.|
Like many people I know, I find that email consumes at least 30 percent of my workday, sometimes more. Yet, I've never been formally taught how to effectively write and manage email. What gives?
In school, we learn about the French and Indian War and how to find the volume of a cylinder. But when it comes to practical knowledge like how to safely drive a car or how to obtain a mortgage loan without falling into financial ruin, we're given a bare minimum of advice (stop at stop signs, try to get a low interest rate) before being thrown into the fire.
The same goes with our bloated inboxes. My email-management habits are a mix of mental idiosyncrasies and a handful of organizational tricks in Outlook that I've stumbled upon through sheer luck; yours are probably about the same.
It's a wonder any of us ever gets anything done.
In a survey on corporate email use conducted by tech research firm The Radicati Group in 2008, respondents said they spent an average of 25 percent of their day on email, sending 38 messages and receiving 102 messages per day. Sound familiar?
Part of the problem is inefficient use of the platform—poor writing, poor organization, and so forth—but another part is overuse. It helps to know how to use email adeptly, but it also helps to know when not to use email at all. Through a combination of better habits and smart use of alternative modes of communication, you can conquer your email demons and have more time to spend on real work.
Break Bad Habits
The first step toward better email productivity: Look at yourself and ask how much you are contributing to your own mess.
"It's what I call the 'Natural Law of Email': the more you send, the more you get," says Chris Bonney, vice president of client services at Vanguard Technology and blogger on email management. "Consider how many people you're sending an email to. If you're sending one email to five people, you're opening yourself up to five potential responses."
And you can count on most of those five responses. "What we have discovered in our research is what's called the boomerang principle," says Tim Burress, president and senior vice president of training at Cohesive Knowledge Solutions and coauthor of The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You. "Email has a rate of return to the sender of 60 percent, so for every five emails you send out, three come back."
Simple math will tell you that 60 percent of zero is zero, so is the answer to your problems just to stop sending email altogether? Sadly, no. That might not stop email from coming to you anyway, and it also might get you fired. Rather, Burress says the answer is rooted in both how an email is written and if it's written at all. We get so many responses, he says, "because generally we type vague, confusing, action-buried-at-the-bottom, misleading, incomplete, unnecessary messages, and people are confused by it, and so they reply, ‘Bob, what are you talking about?'"
Burress stresses that email must be written with the receiver, not the sender, in mind. What makes sense to you might not make sense to your recipient. This frame of mind begs three questions: Is it needed? Is it appropriate? Is it targeted?
Because email is so fast, easy, and light on resources, we tend to skip these questions, Burress says. He contrasts current email writing style with that of typed, printed business letters from the days before the internet. "Old letters were shorter, and the very first sentence was always the main point of the letter," he says. The style that used to be taught in business books was "ABC," for Action, Background, and Close. "Today, in email, the close is at the top, then there's a long background, and then at the end is what the reader needs," says Burress.
Of course, we write poor emails because we have so many to answer and we answer them in a hurry, but then those ineffective messages beget more responses that fill our inboxes anew. This is why Bonney recommends turning off the automatic notification that pops up when new email arrives and saving designated periods of the day to devote attention to email.
This is vital because humans aren't as good at multitasking as they like to think they are. "Every time we switch gears in our brain, we're wasting valuable time," says Bonney. "We've become accustomed to being interrupted, but every time we're interrupted, we buffer those with relatively significant switching time."
To reduce distractions, Bonney recommends keeping different types of email separate by maintaining three email accounts: one for work, one personal, and one "inbound only," which should be used for anything you sign up for or buy online. That way any marketing emails and reading material don't clog your work or personal inboxes and can be perused at your leisure.
Equal Email Understanding
Of course, once you've cleaned up your email habits, it would be nice if your colleagues would follow suit.
Bonney says employers should establish simple guidelines, like "always have a subject line" and "be discriminating in who you send to," as well as the 25-word rule (i.e., if your message is fewer than 25 words—like "Thanks, Betty!" for example—don't bother sending it). Coworkers should also have a common understanding about the "To" and "CC" fields, such as the former being designated for recipients whose responses are needed and the latter for those whose aren't. Burress says a lot of unnecessary email is generated because "many people think there's no difference" between the two.
However, beware making drastic, blanket changes in regard to such a widely used business tool. Burress says one company he worked with instituted no-email Fridays. It didn't take long for staff to learn how to use the "delayed-send" option in their email programs, meaning they would still spend Friday writing responses to email but would then set all of their emails to send at 12:01 a.m. It caused the company's server to crash, he says.
Find the Best Alternatives
That story suggests that, rather than creating restrictions, the opposite approach may be best: In the face of a river of communications, open up as many channels as possible and allow it to flow wherever it may.
This is the approach toward instant messaging (IM) taken by Becky Granger, CAE, director of information technology and member services at EDUCAUSE. More than half of the organization's staff uses IM every day for brief questions and discussions.
"Because we don't have a staff mandate that you will do this, it's just sort of grown organically, and unlike email, it's being used by the people who want to use it because they find it more effective," Granger says. "So, we haven't mandated anything, but we don't block it and we don't tell them they can't do it."
Many of the various free IM services can link into each other, meaning EDUCAUSE staff members can use whichever software they prefer. An alternate approach is to install the same program on all users' computers at an organization. At the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, staff use Trillian for IM, says Jason Heydasch, IT support specialist. Heydasch estimates that about three quarters of CUPA-HR staff actively use IM, sparing themselves a great deal of email.
"I would probably get 30 percent more email if I didn't have instant messenger available, because there's a number of quick questions that people just want an answer to, a brief answer, which they may not be inclined to send an email about," he says.
The obvious downside of IM is the distraction factor, says Granger. "Everybody works differently, and for some people this is a huge distraction because they have a hard time focusing anyway," she says. "I have some staff who know that they can't have IM on, because if they have IM on they're not going to be able to focus on their job."
This is where an organization must trust its employees to manage their own work habits wisely. "Senior staff here and the directors, including the CEO, put a great amount of faith in their employees. Our jobs are getting done," says Heydasch. "Yeah, some conversations will come up like ‘Hey, lunch is ready. Let's get out of here.' Certain conversations like that are inevitable, they're bound to come up, but you're not going to find that much different than the telephone. If we didn't have IM available, someone could be calling me and taking up my time, but at least with instant messaging I can multitask."
Get Group Discussion Out of Email
Email can be quite useful for communications that center on ongoing tasks or projects, but this is also where it seems to spiral out of control most quickly. "The notorious problem with emailing documents around was making sure everyone had the same versions and making sure all the edits were made before sending out another version," says Bob Rich, CAE, assistant secretary, strategic planning and evaluation, at the American Chemical Society.
Thankfully, email's heyday as the leading project-management communication tool may be coming to a close with the advent of collaborative software platforms that allow multiple users to share and edit information in a central location.
ACS has found success with its volunteer committees using collaborative software such as SharePoint and CollectiveX, says Rich. "For task-focused groups, it works really well. People can post shared documents related to the project. It hasn't replaced the need to have meetings or have conference calls, but what it has done is make our conference calls much more efficient," he says.
ACS has even used wikis for the development and evaluation of its strategic plan. The committee that wrote the latest version used Google Documents to make edits and changes. One member could make a change at 10 p.m., for instance, and another could make an edit at 7 a.m. the next day, all to the same centrally hosted document, says Rich. Now, the completed strategic plan has been rolled out with a discussion forum on the ACS website that links into "ACS Communities," which Rich calls "a LinkedIn for chemists."
Collaborative project sites and social networking platforms can complement each other nicely, but for both, the biggest challenge is driving adoption. "Unless you have compelling content that people want to keep coming back to, you're not going to get a lot of eyeballs on the things you want them to talk about," says Rich. Some wiki platforms have the capability for users to sign up for alert emails that notify them about new additions or changes, but this defeats part of the purpose of using them: to reduce email.
Moreover, the realm of wikis is still fairly new. "I thought by now we'd be further advanced in how easy they are to use," says Jenny Levine, internet development specialist and strategy guide at the American Library Association, where more than 100 wikis and blogs for committee and project management were rolled out more than a year ago. "The greatest disadvantage to me is that there's still a learning-curve burden on the user, and because of that participation is not as level as it should be."
Despite these difficulties, Chris Bonney says project work can be a way to "start small" in shifting how you and your colleagues communicate. "It's an opportunity to say ‘Here are the rules for email.' When you make a change among five people, they see the power of the new rules, and then they can take that out into other projects."
Of course, any discussion about alternatives to email cannot ignore two tried-and-true devices: the telephone and face-to-face discussion. Both remain quite effective modes of communication. In deciding when to talk instead of type, Tim Burress offers two small pieces of advice:
- Email does not convey emotions, so never say no or discuss a controversy in an email.
- Look for clues of availability and try to get people from one-way communication to two-way. If you send an email and receive a response within a few minutes, chances are the responder is at his or her desk. Pick up the phone, visit in person, or at least send an IM, if you can.
Whatever methods you choose, don't expect to make an email revolution overnight. Remember, all of our email habits have been developed through years of daily inbox interaction. "Your inbox is a reflection of who you are," says Bonney. "If you have a mess around you, how do you expect to bring a different mindset to your inbox?"
Joe Rominiecki is managing editor, newsletters, for ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. Email: email@example.com. Or, better yet, phone: 202-626-2734.
|Rate this item:||Comments:|
Linda Owens, April 11, 2009
There were some good tips in here but I was hoping for a little more to share with our staff.
Joanna Cardinal, March 19, 2009
Ahhh… Action, Background, Close. I’ve always done Background, Action, Close. Interesting.
I'd definitely stay away from instant messaging as an alternative to email. First, it's really not that different. You still spend time on typing and waiting for responses and it's likely to be less precisely written. Second, I think the instant messaging format places an even higher emphasis on immediate response than email which is obnoxious. Third, it's not as easy to archive and search through for later reference. Finally, “but at least with instant messaging I can multitask” – how is that different or better than email. Maybe poor emails are coming from people’s desires to multitask instead of qualitytask.
Wyatt Miedema, March 05, 2009
An interesting article, but I am suspect of any article that provides advice and tips, yet has errors related to the subject discussed.
This is pulled directly from the article above; it was printed this way as well.
"‘Natual Law of Email':"
"However, beware making drastic, blanket changes in regard to such a widely used a business tool."
To order reprints of any article in its original format, visit Scoopreprintsource.com
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