Independence from Email?
Here in the United States we celebrated our Independence Day last week. Can we also declare independence from email?
At Overture we have had numerous discussions on how to reduce the volume of email, along with the accompanying time and headaches incurred while to processing it. However, email does have real benefits, and any effort to curtail or replace email should recognize its efficacy in certain situations. This blog is a summary of my views on email's benefits, along with some ideas improving the efficiency of email.
Benefits of Email
When trying to reduce the volume or impact of email, it is useful to think about why we use it so much in the first place.
Benefits of email include:
- Email allows you to make requests in a non-intrusive fashion (as opposed to a phone call or trip down the hall)
- Email creates a record of what was discussed
- In the case of externally hosted mail servers, email provides accessibility without requiring VPN access
- Email has broad cross-platform support, including PCs, smartphones and web access
- Email provides grouping of related items in threads
- Email provides a good ability to search for information
Some of the above may not be as important in certain situations, leading to openings for taming the email monster.
On the other hand, any alternative that takes away from these benefits may not be practical.
I read an interesting article "18 Common E-mail Mistakes" that contained a pretty good list of things to avoid. I have highlighted the mistakes that I see most often.
- Sending before you mean to.
- Forgetting the attachment.
- Expecting an instant response.
- Forwarding useless e-mails.
- Not reviewing all new messages before replying.
- Omitting recipients when you "reply all."
- Including your e-mail signature again and again.
- Composing the note too quickly.
- Violating your company's e-mail policy.
- Failing to include basic greetings.
- E-mailing when you're angry.
- Underestimating the importance of the subject line.
- Using incorrect subject lines.
- Sending the wrong attachment.
- Not putting an e-mail in context.
- Using BCC too often.
- Relying too much on e-mail.
- Hitting "reply all" unintentionally.
I have been using the protection mentioned in #1 (don’t add the addresses until you are ready to send) for a long time. This hint is valuable for those of us with fat fingers and/or flaky touchpads. It is especially useful for texting where it is easy to hit send before you are done.
One mistake that is missing from the article is to the failure to include links when referring to items on the web, wiki or intranet, especially when referring to a specific item. I see this one a lot when people are reporting issues regarding a web page.
Another missing mistake is the failure to include a summary and/or call to action. I get a fair number of emails where it is not clear what I am being asked to do, if anything.
Suggestions for Improvement
Confine Project Discussions to a Blog or Wiki
A blog or wiki may be an alternative to email for project-related discussions. We did try this in the past, but usage fizzled. This approach probably requires the most discipline, including the redirecting of email threads to the appropriate threads on the blog.
Use the Phone or Sneakernet and Record the Summary
The phone and walking around are both immediate and email-free ways to communicate. However, we often need to capture the details of what we discussed somewhere. A single email, a wiki page, or blog entry may be good candidates to capture history and decisions.
Define and Use Keywords in the Subject
Another way to improve the current email situation is to reduce the impact of email. For example, defining some keywords for particular threads allows the use of rules in Outlook to place certain emails in certain folders. Users can then skim a related group of emails all at one time. Another way to facilitate the use of rules is to set up email lists, which are then easy to direct to a certain folder.
Apply Brute Force Policing
I have heard stories about how some companies have applied rules limiting the number of emails sent, or prohibiting email during certain hours. Have any of you had experience (good or bad) with such policies?
Apply Personal Output Shaping
Some writers have suggested that since sending email generates more email, we can each try to send less email. A related approach is to be less responsive, while making clear that you are reachable by phone for emergencies.
Don’t Use “Reply All”
The article "The Productivity-Crushing Power of Reply to All" describes the serious downside to spam generated by the use of "Reply All".
Be More Efficient
Another way to reduce the impact of email is to be more efficient ourselves. The Inbox Zero articles have some really good ideas and best practices.