Working Smarter

Beat Email Overload with the Email Etiquette Rulebook

Posted by Joe Robinson

Caffeine break to fuel more email triage

There are a lot of reasons why email has overwhelmed capacity to deal with it, but the main one is that it’s easy. It’s easy to click the send button, easy to not get up from your seat, easy to avoid speaking with someone in person about an issue. But that convenience is an illusion, because we don’t see the cumulative blowback. As we discussed in the Working Smarter blog last week, every email results in six emails—three going, three coming back, so we need a few more gallons of caffeine every day to triage through the mess. 

Cutting email tonnage, not only opens up more time to get our work done, it also reduces the damage to the chief productivity tool: attention. Managing email is really about managing the interruptions that fracture attention, as we’re forced to shift from primary task to secondary items, most of the time unrelated to what we’re doing.

The inability to keep attention on a task for longer than a nanosecond, not surprisingly, affects the quality of our work. Distracted minds don’t see the big picture, make decisions too quickly, send curt messages, can’t focus enough to produce innovative solutions, and have little semblance of work-life balance.

Download "Email & Attention Deficit"

Growing stacks of unread email also fuel overwhelm and a belief that things are out of control. That drives a perception you can’t cope with the avalanche, which sets off the stress response. Taking back control over email shuts down the feeling of chaos and with it, stress that drives poor decisions and health problems. So controlling email is a key stress management strategy.

SET THE TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT

We can get control back by choosing when we interact with email—by setting the terms of engagement with our devices, by checking email manually and turning off all the dingers and noisemakers. That means creating some boundaries—rules in a world where there are none. The way forward is determining limits/norms for information management in every team, department, and organization.

Unlike the telephone, which was adopted over a long enough period that we were able to develop rules for how to use it, e-tools arrived so suddenly and overwhelmingly that they were running the show before anyone knew how to use them effectively. But the good news is that, since there are no rules, they’re up for grabs. That means we can set some.

It’s amazing what can happen with a little law and order. Harvard’s Leslie Perlow did an experiment with a software company whose employees were working nights and weekends to get products completed on time. She instituted a program there called Quiet Time. For four hours a day, two in the morning, two in the late afternoon, there was to be no messaging, so people could concentrate and get their work done. The rest of the day people could revert to messaging as usual. The program resulted in productivity increases of 59% and 65% in the two message-free zones, and jumped 43% even in the period with normal interruptions, because minds were more focused and less harried. The company was able to complete a new product in record time without staff needing to work nights and weekends.

THE SECOND LAW OF EMAIL REDUCTION

Last week's blog introduced the first Law of Email Reduction ("Spay and Neuter to Cut Volume"): Do more in-person messaging. Our second email law is:

Rules for etool use control the abuse of email.

It holds that rules for e-tool use rein in the chaos and reduce the amount of time blown on messaging. It’s not hard to come up with ideas for email rules. We all know the stuff that drives us crazy about email. When I asked what rules they would like to see placed on email usage, managers at a large aviation firm licked their chops and gave me this list, which you may want to take some notes on:

• Deactivate the ‘reply-all’ function

• Develop a weekend code of ethics restricting email to emergencies

• Disable the ghost email alert notification

• Never expect an immediate response from an email

• Pick up the phone and call

• No emails between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• Only send email if there’s an action required

• Don’t send one-line “thank you” and “got it” messages

 

THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF EMAIL MANAGEMENT

No doubt, there are more than a few rules on that list you’d like for your own e-tool handbook. Here’s one of the most important rules that should be a part of any email etiquette book:

Keep email software turned off and check messages manually at set schedules.

There’s no reason to have computers and devices chiming like deranged glockenspiels all day, or blinking those annoying notifications in the corner of your monitor. Turning off message software will shut down the sound and light circus and keep intrusiveness to a minimum. You choose when you’re going to be interrupted, rather than leaving it to anyone with a random thought.

Some 68% of folks keep Outlook or Entourage on autocheck all day, checking continuously. One study (Jackson, 2003) found, that if you keep your system on autocheck every five minutes, you have a potential of 96 interruptions in the course of the day! You can slash that down to 11, if you check mail manually every 45 minutes.

That’s still a lot of checking. You can put a fence around email by restricting yourself to a few retrieval and sending times each day. Manual checking at specific schedules offers the least interruptions and maximum productivity. Try using what researchers have identified as the most optimum email schedules. Holding email to two checks a day results in significantly fewer hours worked daily compared to processing email continuously (Trafton, 2003, Jackson 2003). The most productive schedule is twice or four times a day, according to researchers at Oklahoma State.

When we control the checking, we stop the anarchy. There are a number of other rules that can be easily implemented in any team, department, or organization.

If you would like more rules to help manage email and are interested in an information management workshop at your organization, click the button below for more details. And send me your thoughts on email rules you would like to see.

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There is light at the end of the email in-box.

Tags: work life balance programs, email overload, information overload, productivity and email, email and stress, email and work-life balance, information management programs

Email Overload: How to Cut the Volume Now

Posted by Joe Robinson

Down for the count with email overload

The confessions began to tumble out. One woman at a work-life balance workshop I was leading in New York raised her hand and said sheepishly, “I take my smartphone to bed.” 

“So do I,” chimed in another consultant quickly. “I’ve been sleeping with my phone for years,” offered a third woman.

This is what I call unrequited love. You give your devices undivided love and attention, and what do you get for it? The attention span of a gnat. Constant interruptions. And chronic stress that suppresses your immune system and takes your body down.

No matter what line of work you’re in these days, chances are good there’s only one business you’re really in—the clicking business—checking, sending and receiving piles of email from anyone with a random thought in their heads. How many hours of your day are sucked up by out-of-control messaging?

SPAY AND NEUTER YOUR EMAIL

It’s worth doing the calculating, because your best years are disappearing down the black hole of unbounded email. The average corporate user burns up three-plus hours a day on email, 133 emails and 77 Instant Messages. That adds up to a total of 100 DAYS a year doing nothing but email. That spills over into the nights and early mornings, making any semblance of work-life balance a mirage.

And then there’s the financial cost of email overload—all that lost productivity. Intel estimates that for a company with 50,000 knowledge workers the tab is $1 billion in lost productivity from email overload. Intel, along with Google, Microsoft and Xerox, formed the Information Overload Research Group to fight what they call “email pollution,” a good term for this blight blocking out work and life and cranking up stress.

The approach to email overload so far has been to just react to all the incoming. Get up earlier, stay later. But that’s not viable in a 24/7 world where the avalanche keeps on coming. As any engineer could tell you, we have structural limits.

To cut down on the deluge, you have to make changes that will actually reduce the volume of email. Email is the electronic rabbit, multiplying like oversexed cottontails. Every email has offspring, and they have offspring. A single message creates six messages—three going, three coming back, say researchers. Even at the standard rate of three minutes an email, that’s 18 minutes down the tubes for every email you send. Add it up. We have to spay and neuter our email.

I talked to a VP at a major technology firm in San Diego who gets more than 250 emails a day. He starts at 5 in the morning with two hours of email at home before going to work, then spends several hours more on message duty after he gets into his office. “It just seems like I can never catch up,” he told me, looking completely drained.

The sooner we can see email for the rabbit it is, the quicker we can keep the population down. Email plays on the social animal’s need for positive reinforcement, even if it’s just a canned reply-all mail or spam on the other end of the line. We have to understand how we are being played by this dynamic and use but not abuse the technology.

THE MORE YOU CHECK EMAIL, THE MORE YOU HAVE TO CHECK IT

In a study on email addiction, Rutgers University researcher Gayle Porter found that technology can be just as addicting as chemical or substance abuse. Have you ever had that feeling that you have to check email though you just checked it five minutes ago? That’s your impulse control out of control, thanks to the interruptions, which erode a part of your executive attention function that regulates impulsivity. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

With friends like yourself around, who needs enemies?

Download "Email & Attention Deficit"

To actually cut the volume of email, we have to start reducing the tonnage. There are three ways to do that. We’ll cover the first law of email reduction in this blog.

Email Law # 1: Do More In-Person Messages

More phone and face-to-face contact seems like heresy, but the evidence at companies such as Deloitte & Touche and U. S. Cellular, which are mandating less email and more phone and face-to-face messaging, shows that reduced email increases productivity and builds rapport and relationships. Even former email addicts have come around to become true believers and are increasing their productivity through in-person messaging with co-workers.

Email is a handy tool to set up a phone conversation, in which you can handle all the issues in one go, instead of going back and forth in the usual volley of trying to extract the piece of information you need from someone who keeps sending fragments of the answer you’re looking for. You fire off an email to coordinate a time to speak on the phone or meet live. You can mention, if you like, that you’re on an email reduction drive and that this is a way to save both of you multiple emails.

This method combines the best of both worlds, using email for a specific and limited reason, and the phone to nail down all the back and forths that would normally be perpetuated by the email cottontails. You are respecting your colleagues’ time this way, and they will appreciate it.

RISING TO THE IMPORTANCE OF A PHONE MESSAGE

Email has overwhelmed our lives because it’s convenient. We don’t have to physically interrupt someone with a call or pop-in. In the old days, the message had to rise to the importance of a phone call before it entered the universe. It helped to limit messages to the most important ones. There are zero inhibitions to clicking email.

A manager at an aerospace company told me at a work-life workshop I conducted that he’s gotten his email-checking down to twice a day, while colleagues are indulging 20 times that often. He makes it clear that his preferred mode of communication is the phone and that an email needs to be worth sending before clicking. When he volunteered his solution before a group of fellow managers, their jaws hit the floor. He looked calm, unbeleaguered, in control of his destiny. He’d reined in the abuse with boundaries that worked.

If most of your mail is coming from outside your office, add “No Reply Necessary” to the subject line or body of the message to let the other person know they don’t have to get back to you. If the bulk of mail is coming from your team or department, use the 100-Foot Rule. Get up from your desk and deliver the message in person to anyone within 100 feet of your desk, and then expand it to 200 or 500 feet for a little extra exercise.

For every email you don’t send, you save 18 minutes (at the standard rate of three minutes an email). How many messages can you resist sending today and much time can you save?

If you'd like to know more about email management programs that can help your or your organization control information overload, click the button below:

 

Tags: work life balance programs, email overload, information overload, productivity and email, too much email

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