Email was designed to be a tool to expedite and simplify communication. Tools are effective when managed properly. What happens when the tool starts to manage the person? What happens when a tool for communication replaces conversation and personal interaction? What happens when a time saving tool begins to consume our time? Then it is time to get email under control.
Use Separate Email Accounts
Many people have an email address that is associated with the workplace. This email address should be strictly limited to work related communications and should not be used for personal correspondence. There are many free services available for creating a personal email address that can be used for personal correspondence. If you want to stay in touch with friends, family or classmates, use your personal email address. If you want to share jokes, keep it outside of work. If you want to use an email for registrations, updates or informational newsletters, then use a personal email address. Your personal email address can go places that your work assigned email address can not go, like your next job for example.
Maintaining separate email accounts will help schedule time by maintaining a clear delineation between time at work and personal time. Keeping a personal email address out of the workplace will help to keep your personal life just that - personal. There also may be observations, jokes or comments that you want to share that may not be appropriate for a work related email account. Remember that everything that you send through a company email server is typically stored or archived, and that makes it available long after you deleted it from your own computer. Email correspondence is a favorite target for courtroom entertainment, and a single sentence taken out of context can be devastating. So use the work related email for professional communication and keep the personal correspondence on the side.
Folders and Archives
There are many useful ways to organize the incoming emails. Some individuals prefer to file email by the sender of the email. This makes it easy to locate historical email if you can remember who sent it to you. Some email tools also have functions to immediately sort and store incoming email by the sender. Keep in mind that the email chain may be copied into multiple folders if there are several people copied on the email and participating in a chain of updates.
An alternative method of organizing email is to file according to topic. This is a manual process that requires thought and manual effort. It can be useful if there are many individuals associated with an organization or event that you want to manage as a group.
Another useful tool for organizing email is to create monthly folders for temporarily holding emails that you intend to delete. Start at the beginning of each month by creating a folder or directory for holding email that has been read and is intended to be discarded. The directory may be a place to put email that is not intended to be preserved for historical reference, but might be handy to keep around in case it is needed. Continue making a new directory at the beginning of the following month, and the one after that. Once you have collected three months worth of email in three separate folders, then each time that you create a new folder at the beginning of one month, you can delete the folder that is ninety days old. For example, once you have accumulated folders for January, February and March, you might consider deleting or archiving all of the email associated with the January folder when starting April. This is a simple and easy way to manage archiving email on a scheduled basis.
Keep Your In Box Empty
Organize your priorities, file email by person or topic, and archive monthly. If there are still unresolved emails that need to be addressed, then create another directory labeled HOT or PRIORITY for follow-up. Move outstanding or unresolved email into that category for future follow-up and get it out of the general in box. This makes it much easier to manage the new incoming communications clearly and effectively. Clearing out the In Box will also help to reduce stress. Leaving unresolved email in the general In Box is sometimes perceived as a convenient reminder or 'to do' list. Why torture yourself with a constant nagging 'to do' list of things that you can not resolve immediately? Move it out of the way until you can resolve it and eliminate the distraction.
Brace yourself, this observation may come as a bit of a shock, "email is not intended to be a conversation". Email is not a tool for real time communication. Email is not instant messaging. Email is not in person and it is not a phone call. Email is not an effective tool for carrying on real time interactive discourse. If there is an emergency, consider other methods of communication. If there is a need for continual clarification or interaction then consider another form of communication If the email dialogue has been reduced to a conversation then the tool is managing you.
Create a schedule for checking email. Stick with your schedule and some amazing things will happen. The first amazing thing is that some email chains will resolve themselves before you become an active participant. Just because a group of people participated in a real time email communication, it does not mean that you have to do the same. Wait for the activity to subside and you may be able to catch up on the whole chain of communications by reading one long string, as opposed to being constantly interrupted by multiple other comments as they are added to the pile. It is easier to read the chain all at once rather than sporadically as it develops throughout the day.
The second amazing thing that will happen if you stick to your schedule is that other people will come to recognize and accommodate your schedule. If you are a morning person then people will come to expect your replies in the morning. If you check emails at night because you travel or have meetings during the day, then people will come to expect your response the following day. If you schedule your email periodically at certain times during the day, then people will get to know your routine and will anticipate your replies accordingly. Not surprisingly, it means that people will also adjust the times that they send the email to you. Overall, handling email in scheduled blocks of time is useful for organizing schedules for the sender and the recipient. It allows you to give your full focus on the conversation or activity of the moment will full confidence that you will see your email at a scheduled time, and thereby reduce distractions all around.
Functional versus Conversational
Do you ever find yourself sitting at your computer and waiting for the next email to arrive? Do you respond to every pop-up message alert? If so, then you are addicted to email conversations and need to break yourself of the habit. There is a much better life waiting for you, complete with sunshine and fresh air. Email is intended to be a functional tool. It is useful for communicating to large groups of people simultaneously. Email is a good tool for documenting communications. Email is a great way to stay in touch over long distances and extended periods of time. Email is not a tool for real time communication. If you find yourself using a work related email account for conversational email, then consider scheduling time for your personal email account and make the separation for better time management.
Don't Everyone Thank Me at Once!
Positive reinforcement and personal recognition are important for motivation and relationships. If you are compelled to respond to an email correspondence with a 'Thank you', then send it to one person. If the accomplishment or contribution is so outstanding that it is worthy of informing a large group of people or the entire company, then take the time to document with detail the effort and result that is being appreciated. A simple "thank you" between two individuals is fine. Copying a multitude of people on the simple expression of appreciation is not necessary. If it is important enough to copy everyone on a personal 'thank you', then it is worth taking the time to write more.
Be Explicit or Be Brief
Email can be brief to be effective. For example, a simple response or "yes" or "no" may be sufficient under certain circumstances. If brevity fits the situation, then be brief. On the other hand, sometimes a detailed explanation may be a useful response, especially if there are important nuances or details that may otherwise be overlooked. Adapt your email style to the content, message and the recipient.
Are you getting email from other people who could use some advice to get their email under control? Share some tips with them and see if you get a "Thank you" in return. Who is really reading your email?
Words of Wisdom
"The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity."
- Walt Whitman, Songs of the Open Road
"Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after."
- Anne Morrow Lindberg, "Gift from the Sea'
"Electronic communication is an instantaneous and illusory contact that creates a sense of intimacy without the emotional investment that leads to close friendships."
- Clifford Toll, "Silicon Snake Oil"