Ask anyone what they enjoy most about work and there's a good chance it won't be emails. In the conversations I've had with many clients, emails (along with crappy meetings) are consistently identified as the biggest thing that gets in the way of great work.
In some organisations I've worked with, terrible cultural norms have formed around email. Things like hitting reply-all for every email, all of the time. Or writing ridiculously long emails with buried, unclear calls to action. Or abusing the term "ASAP". Or any of these things.
Here's what the better way looks like for internal emails. (The ones that happen inside your company, between staff.)
A while back, Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and curator of TED (along with TED scribe Jane Wulf) wrote a blog post about the relentless growth of inbox overload. "The average time taken to respond to an email is greater, in aggregate, than the time it took to create."
The blog post was immensely popular, and has since turned into a global email charter -- "10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral".
The first and most fundamental rule: respect the recipient's time. "As the message sender, the onus is on you to minimise the time your email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending," Anderson and Wulf state.
But, even better -- imagine if there was simply no need for email at work.
At least, no need for the internal emails. Quick questions and queries would be handled on internal social networks like Yammer. Project conversations would be housed on platforms like Basecamp, Asana, or something custom-built. People would meet using something like Google Hangouts.
This stuff is happening right now in forward-thinking organisations. In fact, in many ways this stuff is already old. As William Gibson once said: "The future is already here -- it's just not evenly distributed".
But what about external emails? (The ones that happen between you and people outside your company.)
Opening your inbox is like a variable reward ratio. This is one of the key elements game designers use to keep players investing time in their games, and it's part of the reason why poker machines can be so addictive. Every time you open your inbox, you don't know what surprises await you.
But the key thing that really gets us with emails is that processing them provides such a rich and immediate sense of progress. And we'll always default to activities that provide the clearest sense of progress. And so, if most of your emails are external facing, here's a few hacks I've picked up that may be useful to you. They're all part of...
The hilarious adventures of Dr Fox and Email
I get hundreds of emails each day. I filter most of them with Gmail tabs, smart rules, and Sanebox. Of the emails that are left, I use Google Inbox to glide through them (or Triage if things are more dire) -- this is a process where you archive or delete emails that don't need a response, and quickly answer the ones that do.
What's left of the emails are the ones that require more consideration, which can be tackled in sprints via The Email Game, or just a good session in plain ol' Gmail (making sure you've enabled keyboard shortcuts, and use apps like Typinator or TextExpander). Actionable items are captured in Todoist or Flow.
I try to keep my emails to five sentences or fewer, and what doesn't need to be handled directly by me, I forward to my wonderful assistant. Sometimes.
And what does all of this cleverness add up to?
More emails. Ha. And so beyond getting in further support, in the form of more staff or a management team ( probably wise), I've come to realise that this email challenge is probably a mindset thing. Or, more accurately -- a mindfulness thing.
It's something I've still got to work on. Maybe you do too? I'm keen to hear your thoughts on whether email is ruining your life. Just not via email, obviously.