There are solutions to the frustration of managing email. The fundamental answer is a shift in behaviors and expectations. David Allen’s Getting Things Done has helped change the conversation from a technology focus to a behavioral focus. Technology is part of the solution – but only if we use it differently. I have not needed a vertical scroll bar on my email for 3 months, something I would not have believed possible a year ago. The technology didn’t change – I did.
The scale of the problem has grown so rapidly that cultural norms and behaviors have not had time to adapt. As a result feelings of guilt and frustration are widespread as people watch their inbox grow faster than they can clear it. Anger at spammers is epidemic (I hope there is a special place in hell for them involving all the devices they are trying to sell us). These are not healthy emotions.
Some have taken to declaring email bankruptcy, throwing up their hands and cleaning the slate. As usual Scott Adams is brilliant on the subject of email as a weapon. But the best description of the problem I’ve seen was recently posted at 43 Folders.
“Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What ‘pile’? It’s just a f#@$ing pebble!”
Fundamentally taming email is a behavioral problem. It involves setting and managing expectations. While this is everyone’s issue it is management’s responsibility to lead in this area.
We have to start with input. At least half of the solution is coaching people to write better emails. Years ago I put together what I call my email “commandments” and I have updated it over time. The gist is that people should be brief, communicate clear expectations, and be considerate. The fundamental change people need to accept is that in email brevity is a sign of consideration not rudeness.
With a foundation like this in place people can conduct a meta conversation as they manage their email traffic. For example, if I find someone sending a lot of attachments I’ll refer them to the “Attachments – Use Sparingly” section of the list.
Another huge part of the problem is that people use email inappropriately. There are many issues that are resolved faster and more effectively by having a brief conversation with someone. A manager I worked with recently added the “Round Trip Rule” to the email commandments. If you have more than one reply cycle on an email exchange – stop and make a call, set up a meeting, or just wander over to chat.
For how to manage the output side I strongly recommend Allen’s book. Buy it, read it, start to put it into practice and you will notice a difference within a few days.