Note: I originally posted this to our internal discussion board at work looking for feedback. I wanted to share and archive it here as I think it’s a common problem for a lot of people and organizations.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we communicate as an organization and would like to publicly decree that I’m out to kill how we use email. No, I’m not going to go dismantle the Exchange server or anything like that, but rather I’d like to help figure out what went wrong when email was unleashed upon the world and take back control of our time and attention.
Like some villainous fungus sprung up in a night we have no natural defenses against it. We check it so frequently that it’s become an almost Pavlovian response to look at a screen when you hear a small chime. We use it to send out time sensitive and critical information, yet it was designed to be a passive asynchronous medium. We check it at work and at play – a times of the day where you can’t do anything about it other than fret. I’ve even been in meetings where people are checking email for other work and not paying attention to the work at hand!
What can we do to establish a more productive and sane email culture? I realize it’s not solely email’s fault for our difficulty in focusing on one thing at a time (and don’t get me started on the myth of multitasking), but we have to start somewhere.
So let’s start. Please join me and share you best advice for handling email. What tips and tricks do you use to help keep your head above the water and remain a well-functioning and communicative co-worker?
I’ll kick off with a few ideas of my own.
- How do you create intelligent subject lines?
Are you asking a question? Start the subject with “Question – blah blah blah”. Meeting invite? “Meeting Invite – blah blah blah”
- Best practices for managing inbox cruft?
You’ll never read those 113 newsletters you subscribed to about. Unsubscribe now, it’s ok. Use filters to automatically prioritize work. Email from a person or thing (like MTS Alerts) that are often high priority – filter them to an “Important” sub-folder. Med or low priority to a “Not So Important” sub-folder.
- What’s the socially acceptable way to reply to a confirmation of something?
Answer: single sentence email replies – bad. Elaborate or don’t bother to reply.
- Did anyone ever attend “How to use Email and not go Totally Insane 101” when they first got email?
No!? Why not? Should we host a Communities of Knowledge or workshop around email best practices?
Here’s some recent and related articles I’ve been reading that has me all riled up. I don’t have all the answers on how we can better leverage our time – and more importantly our attention, but here’s to a start.
- New York Times – Disruptions: Life’s Too Short for So Much E-Mail
- Lifehacker – What Multitasking Does to our Brains
- Joshua Lyman – Email is not broken, we are.
- Life as a Healthcare CIO – The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time
- Seth Godin – Ranking for signal to noise ratio
- The Atlantic – The Cigarette of This Century
- New York Times – The ‘Busy’ Trap
- MIT Media Lab – The Cognitive Limit of Organizations
And of course the always excellent Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” (YouTube)