Ever get caught up in an email stream that seems unending? For example:
Joe: “Anybody want to go out for lunch?”
Mary: “I guess, where do you want to go?”
Bill: “Depends, where you thinking of going?”
Joe: “I’m thinking sushi!”
Mary: “Sounds good.”
Bill: “When do you want to leave?”
Mary: “How about 12:30?”
etc., etc., etc.
Q: How do you deal with the proliferation of email messages like this chat?
A: Joe: “Anyone want to join me for sushi at lunch? If so, meet me in the lobby at 12:30. See you then, or meet us at Acme Sushi on Hwy 28.”
Chatting is best done using a chat service.
Give a direct solution, don’t leave things hanging that have to be discussed.
This post is inspired by a session at Science Online 2012 that I attended in January 2012. The session was on the information overload that many of us endure in our personal and professional lives. There is a constant stream of tweets, email messages, IMs, Google+ posts, FaceBook, etc. Some people become engrossed by all the information and it destroys productivity. I have dealt with email for a long time and have looked into ways to get a handle on it.
I compare the problem to that of a sick and bleeding patient. You deal with the critical thing first. The first thing to consider is to stop the bleeding rather than try to cure the illness. Minimizing the incoming stream can be accomplished in most cases. First, analyze who is sending you messages so you have some idea how you can manage the flood. Most email is from people on your workgroup, friends & family, email distribution lists, and miscellaneous senders.
For project teams or workgroups, there are effective techniques for managing email. Frankly, good management will have developed a communications plan even if it is loosely defined. It is important for a manager to set up rules of engagement for communications. Put together a communications plan where team members understand when to email and when to use other communications.
For example, a manager may want to limit email to weekly updates (daily in some cases.) Individuals may be assigned to deliver their input to one person and that person might send one message a week to the team. I see a lot of people in a constant email stream defining work assignments. These can be multiple messages where one answer ends up causing additional questions. Suddenly, you have 10-20 messages to define simple tasks. Email probably isn’t the best way to handle these types of problems, but I see this happening all the time. Use the telephone or walk down to the person rather than have a long email stream back and forth.
Carbon copy is one of the most abused parts of email systems. Each person should think about who really needs to be copied on messages. There are very few times when everyone on a distribution list needs to have a copy of a message between two other people. This means that all those people need to manage the message with no gain in productivity. Don’t do it.
The email system should not be a file storage where people attach documents and send them back and forth. That is what file systems do. Also, FTP, wikis, and all sorts of collaboration tools are better ways of handling the file distribution problem. The versioning issue with files are also a big problem when people email copies of files around for review or editing. It can be very hard to determine the latest version and the correct version of a document.
A manager should also consider other forms of communication. A wiki or blog system may be a better mechanism for a team. Those will allow other team members to see Q&A and not have to repeat the same discussion on another email thread. Collaboration tools should be used for collaboration rather than having that stuffed into a messaging system.
Getting all the communication plan at the start of a project is a good way to limit the number of messages you have to manage. After a few projects, you will notice a reduction in the number of messages due to frequency and the number of CCs that you get. The idea is to reduce the number of message in total and only message when information is useful rather than CYA which happens a lot in business.
Business people should also consider the sources of their messages and ways to compartmentalize groups of messages into separate folders. Most email systems allow you to filter messages by a number of criteria. You can send email lists to specific folders. You can send messages from the boss or special accounts into the “important” folder. Family and personal messages can be sorted to a “Personal” folder automatically by the sender’s address. Email distribution list messages can be sorted to different folders. Alerts from machines and systems that many of us receive can be moved to a “Alerts” folder. Getting things out of the Inbox and into specific folders allows you to deal with the messages appropriately (or not at all.)
If you find that you don’t read all those messages from professional email lists, you should consider unsubscribing from them and using the web based system to peruse messages. That gets the messages out of your system, but they are still available on-line at your leisure. Some of the geek lists I received would have hundreds of messages a day. No one can deal with a job and deal with lists like that.
Unless you are told by your management that you must be available in real time, consider turning off your email client for most of the day. Check email two to four times a day at specific times. Some people do it twice at 11am and 4pm. Obviously, this doesn’t work for everyone and it should be cleared by your management. This goes to another issue of time management, but it is very much related. That’s another blog post though.
The conclusion is that the best way to deal with email is to not get it in the first place. Determine a communications plan for any teams that you manage. Figure out ways to reduce message count. Delete messages viciously. Sort and file any incoming messages and plan time to deal with them. If you see that you don’t deal with them over time, maybe you should look at why you are getting the messages in the first place. Life is too short to worry about missing something!