The Trouble with Emails – Part I

The Trouble with Emails
How you make emails work for you

Obtrusive emails and pointless meetings: two inevitable ways of communication that jangle our nerves, and yet we cannot go without them. Although emails are probably one of the best inventions of the last century, by now it is also one of the most hated medium of our time. Emailing people is fast, it´s easy and it´s often a waste of time. In fact, we spend about one third of our daily work time with checking and replying to emails [1]. Only attending meetings can beat this with about fifty percent, while their efficiency is highly discussable likewise. That sums up to nearly eighty percent of communication through emailing and meeting people. One may argue that there´s nothing wrong with that. Communication is the most important thing, that´s what we praise all the time – totally agreed. However, there are downsides to both of them: we transfer eighty percent of what we want to communicate not by words but through body language and voice. By implication twenty percent of the actual content gets lost. Just check the last 5 emails in your inbox, and extract only the relevant information from it. I bet it boils down to some very few words. Emails are too often poisoned with imprecise language, idioms, and metaphors. On top of that we have to overcome cultural boundaries and get the point across different languages. That ends up in Chinese whispers frequently.

Now, how can we tackle these issues? Which strategies do exist to escape from the hamster wheel? And which of those really increase our productivity and that of others? Let´s have a closer look at the root causes, examine their correlations, and step into solutions that make mails work for you.

Don´t let your email dictate your priorities. ↬ Jeff Davidson

A symbol of stress: handling the mail flood

It goes “buzz” and “bing”, it “pops up” and “pushes notifications”. Your inbox is screaming for attention and it won´t let you rest. According to a McKinsey report [1] we check our emails up to 350 times a day. It´s not surprising that it´ll drive us crazy, up to a point where the inbox itself becomes a symbol of stress and overload. When a new message flies in we feel like we have to jump to it right away. Quite many people even think they have to handle all of their mails during the day. Here comes the paradox of productivity: for each mail you reply to, you´ll get three mails back. It´s pretty clear that no one can handle such an amount of emails and still be in a productive mode that adds value to the work. Emails seem to control the schedule of the day and make us their slaves. They interrupt tasks constantly, decrease the power of focus and leave us with the unpleasant feeling of incomplete tasks intensified by the little envelope icon that flashes in a penetrant matter until you pay it its (un)deserved attention. In fact, employees are more satisfied at work when they have control over their day and decide on their very own schedule. Moreover, human beings are programmed to get things done and finish incomplete tasks. That´s simply in our nature and we can hardly help it. But the game is not lost – that is to say, we are in the driver seat and can regain our time and productivity. The answer is simple: P R I O R I T Y.

Set your goals and priorities clear. Set them not only for the year or the quarter, set them on a daily basis, and refine them whenever needed. Structure your to-do list following the question “How is my time best spend right now?” That will set the stage for further conversations with team members, stakeholders and your manager. If you know our top priority you can make your day your own again and rule most of its activities.

With this in mind let´s turn back to our overflowing mailboxes. If we consider emails a way to execute communication we should also think about a strategy for its execution. Emailing is not a face-to-face conversation, which implies that you´ll most likely do not receive a response immediately. So when you are the sender of an email, have some thoughts upfront about your expectations: who do you want to contact? When do you expect a response? Which kind of information do you want to transfer? And always remember that one mail shot out initiates a sequence of actions on the recipients’ side as well as yours.

One easy way to organize both your work and email priorities is making use of Covey´s Time Management Grid. Simply structure your mailbox in the same way.

Tipp:  Covey´s Time Management Grid

Create one folder for each quadrant: A. urgent & important B. not urgent & important C. urgent & not important D. not urgent & not important.
Whenever a mail flies in put it in one of the folders. During the day you can work yourself through the four folders keeping the A folder in focus. Emails that go into the not urgent, but important folder are most likely concerning long-term developments and strategy. These are probably the ones you should reply to when you are not under time pressure and distraction. Unfortunately, the most mails you´ll receive may fall under category C, and are not important at all, but highly urgent as someone wants a certain information right away.

However, do not let yourself stress out by those ones and keep in mind to do important things first.

Playing Ping-Pong: set expectations right

Emails often go back and forth, and usually that “conversation” only contains a few word long sentences. In real life this game is called ping-pong. By time we´ve become very good at it. However, as already discussed in the first part of the article emailing is not a real-time conversation. Though we tend to treat it like that, and think we can type in the same speed as we speak. In fact “fire and forget” behavior is exhausting if you stretch a short discussion over hours and days. On top of that the actual outcome and action is also delayed by hours and days. Shooting out emails in a ping-pong like conversation brings satisfaction for only one side: the sender. Pressing the “send” button takes away the feeling of guilt and brings some kind of relief for paid dues. No to-do anymore on the table. Great, you are free now to work on B folder topics whereas your colleague is busy with your A or C folder message.

To mitigate this unpleasant situation just think about another channel of communication: why not walking over to the persons´ desk or having a quick chat over the phone? If you work with remote teams or the person you want to address does not sit in the same office make use of chat channels such as Skype and Slack. Conversations over chat channels are easy, quick and you´ll get a direct response. The response expectation is another key factor: which kind of response do you expect from your audience? Response time and quality is determining. Do you expect a well thought-through reply? Then expect no immediate email back. Or do you want a quick informal exchange of thoughts? Then select your channel accordingly and open up a short chat discussion. As a manager try not to reply or send any email on a Sunday morning! That might lead to frustrated employees that start their Monday morning with a to-do item that might have been resolved already yesterday. Please do not ruin their weekend or the start of the week.

Tipp:  Channel & Response

Select the right channel for your communication → use a chat for informal information and a quick response time and an email for rather thought-through responses

Be aware of the time you send out emails → don´t send them on Sunday 9pm! That might frustrate your recipients on their Monday morning.

This article is not about how to make your emails better, but rather rethinking how your time can be spent more efficiently. If you want to learn how to mitigate hassle like the „cc-syndrome“ and the TLDR issue go to the second part ↬ THE TROUBLE WITH EMAILS – PART II

Source: [1] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/the-social-economy

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