What fresh torture is this? “Just resending this email to get it to the top of your inbox!” Let me stop you right there. There is no top of my inbox. My inbox is empty. At least it was before you decided to do the digital equivalent of emptying the contents of my waste paper basket all over the floor of my study. Back slowly away, if you value your typing fingers.
Not a month goes by without some monstrous email habit catching on. Isn’t it about time we figured this all out? Email celebrates its 50th birthday this year and has been ubiquitous in the office for a couple of decades. Yet it is hard to think of a workplace practice that causes more aggravation. (Well — there’s the open-plan office. But let’s not go there, metaphorically or otherwise.)
When I asked people on Twitter to share their pet hates about email, I was struck by the fact that they were still arguing about etiquette. Some hated the stiff formality of “Dear Tim” and “kind regards” while others insisted on it. A few complained about people who typed the message into the subject line; many people wanted to see much more of this, for swifter reading.
One must always be considerate, but it is a category error to think of email as governed by the rules of etiquette. Email is a tool for getting things done, and so the essential questions are not about salutations but about productivity. Emails are problematic not when they use the wrong sign-off but when they waste time and attention.
The more thoughtful treatments of this problem — for example, Cal Newport’s new book A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Overload — rightly diagnose a systemic malaise. Part of the problem stems from email’s sheer versatility. We can use email for almost anything, so we do. A wise organisation will seek out tools and processes better adapted to collaborating on specific tasks. If you try to co-ordinate a complex project with your colleagues in a general all-purpose inbox, stress and overload are inevitable. You enter what Newport calls “the hyperactive hive mind”.
Yet while this is a systemic problem, there’s a lot each individual can do to tame it.
First: use the tools that many email programs offer. If you want to send an email to a large group while ensuring that only you receive the replies, don’t type “PLEASE DO NOT REPLY ALL”. Make it impossible to do so by putting the group in BCC. If someone else fails to follow this rule and your inbox fills up with witty but irrelevant banter from colleagues, try “mute”. Use “schedule send” to ensure your email arrives during office hours, no matter when you send it. This is a kindness, but also trains your colleagues not to expect instant responses.
Second: be the change you want to see in the world. Try announcing that you are “moving Julia to BCC” as a way of politely excusing her from further duties in a group email. Dabble with changing the subject line: “Arrangements for AGM 8 July” ceases to be a good subject if the AGM has been moved to July 7. If your entire email is that the 4pm meeting has been postponed by 15 minutes, then I recommend a subject line “The 4pm meeting has been postponed by 15 minutes //” rather than “URGENT PLEASE READ”.
Why act like this? Because it makes you a more pleasant person to work with. Because people will notice, and they may learn. Just as people acquire appalling habits from each other, such as sending repeated invitations to the same Zoom URL (or is it the same?), they also follow good examples.
My third piece of advice is the most fundamental: clarify and decide. A hundred emails a day is a lot if you leave half of them sitting in your inbox. Keep that up and in a month you’ll have 1,500. Give it a year and you’ll be begging to be allowed to declare email bankruptcy, post the keys through the letterbox and walk away. The solution is to be sharper about your decisions. If no action is needed then delete or archive. Most archived email is easy to find again.
If action is needed, and it is brief and obvious, do it immediately. Otherwise, archive the email and note the project in a task manager such as Trello, Remember the Milk or even a simple text file. If the email is about a meeting, put all the details in your calendar. But unless you want to give the entire world access to your to-do list, do not make the mistake of using your inbox as that list.
This isn’t always easy, but the alternative is worse. I recently had the opportunity to discuss my work habits with productivity trainer Todd Brown of Next Action Associates. A hard core of about a dozen emails sitting in my Action folder, stubbornly unmoving, was giving me headaches. Todd correctly diagnosed the problem: in each case I hadn’t quite decided what the action was supposed to be.
The solution to email overload is to make clear decisions, quickly. That does not and should not mean instant replies, but it should mean that the email no longer festers in the inbox. A sharp organisation will find better ways to handle its core activities than reverting to email. But so too will a sharp individual.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 26 March 2021.
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