• On 14/03/2021
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Reconsidering email

This year marks one of the anniversaries of email. It was in 1971 that Ray Tomlinson established the protocols for sending messages with the @ identifier. I’ve been thinking a lot about email for a while now. Not only because it’s such a big part of how work gets done, but more so in the how and why behind it’s prevalent use and mis-use.

My guess is that I could poll 100 people about email and all them will likely have a love and hate relationship with it. We all recognize that it does help in some ways, but simultaneously, we all recognize that it is painfully inefficient and time wasting in many other ways. The pandemic  and working from home has brought email into the spotlight even more.

Then I’ve recently read some excerpts of this book, A world without email. Cal Newport’s premise is a simple one in theory: he argues for a workplace in which clear processes–not haphazard messaging–define how tasks are identified, assigned and reviewed. Each person works on fewer things (but does them better), and aggressive investment in support reduces the ever-increasing burden of administrative tasks. (from the summary blurb of his book).

Some of his suggestions are not new or novel. So for instance, he offers the idea of doing an hour of intensive work and then an hour of the administrative work that goes along with it. The former would be without distraction and the latter would be the tie that email and other technologies that may be necessary to communicating with other would be used. This is a strategy that I use myself and have argued for too. The fewer projects that allow one to go deeper and in more meaningful ways is also one many (including myself) have advocated for.

Historically, technical and professional communication has had at one of its fundamental tenets that we play a role in needing to document processes that get work done and information circulated. The emphasis on and understanding of the importance of procedural writing and complex information systems related to knowledge workers underscores the work of technical communication. Many pundits and conversations often refer to an information overload in thinking about some of the problems with work and society. I tend to think of it more as a communication overload. We are often communicating in too many platforms and in such inefficient ways that we often can’t find the information we actually need to get the work done.

If we’re going to consider ways to work through the communication overload problem, then technical and professional communicators need to go back to some of the basics of what it is we do. For me, that would be in rethinking when and why to use email. Here’s my four email guidelines that have helped to make my own work life more workable:

Use email for its main purpose, which is not dialogue

We often times get caught up in reply all and spend too much time “talking” over a course of several days about something that a 5 or 10 minute conversation would resolve or move something forward. Removing any item that needs a conversation from email has reduced the clutter and freed up time and always ends up with more better results.

Not using email as a dialogue tool also minimizes the ways in which email can be misinterpreted, which leads to even more problems. As a communication tool, we have to mindful of what, when, why, and how we are using the tool. The emphasis here on tool is also meant to remind all of us that we control our tool use—not the other way around. So taking time to remember that email isn’t meant for dialogue and is more suited to

Makes subject lines do the work

As someone in charge of a large department, I have ported into higher education the thing I was known for in the workplace—specific subject lines. They signal in clear ways what the message is and (in theory) that helps readers to know what they are supposed to do.

I use FYI a lot. Where twenty years ago, we would send a memo to people updating them on things, now we send an email. Many of these updates without an action item are tagged with your FYI. I have also made it clear that FYI emails require no response nor any action, but they are used for information that people need.

If I need someone to do something, the subject line starts with “action needed,” which is a stand in for something that won’t take super long but requires the recipient to do something. “Task needed” or “task assigned” means it’s something that the recipient will need to put into their workflow.

The key to making a system like this work is that you also have to routinely remind people how it works. In higher education, that’s fairly easy because the academic term has built in reminder times such as the beginning of the academic year or the beginning of each academic term. In workplaces, I would put these sort of things on quarterly reminders or whenever you do a review of the financials with employees. In smaller organizations, every six months likely would work.

Move collaborative writing and work to those spaces

So much of what we do in the workplace is done collaboratively. Internal reports, deliverables for clients, knowledge work of creating, designing, and making is all routinely done with other people. This “making” work needs to be done in spaces designed for that work, and email is not that space.

Moving this work out of email and email attachments saves time in so many ways. Email is then simply used to notify when others need to do the work (If this is how your organization works). This idea also means that you don’t move the work to other platforms that aren’t meant for collaboration either. Substituting lengthy DM or channel exchanges in a tool like Slack is just as inefficient as doing those things in email. In other words, not only is this call not to use email as a collaborative workspace, it’s a reminder to actually use tools appropriate for the work you need to accomplish.

Set email boundaries

Not leaving your email open while you need to do the work is the hardest habit for people to build. BUT, it’s also the most important. If you set email boundaries and learn to stick with them, you will find that your attitude about work improves and your ability to do work improves.

I recognize this is hard. Totally hard. It’s hard because sometimes you can get immediate gratification from an email exchange, but at the same time that gratification is often just a procrastination tactic of doing tasks you may dread or tasks that you know will be challenging. Very few of us work in jobs where waiting a few hours or a couple of days to respond to emails will change the course of work or the world. For those rare times when there is an immediate action needed via an email, people know how to reach me outside of my email hours.

So for the anniversary of email, let’s give ourselves the gift of re-considering what we need out of this relationship with email and then making changes that enable us to use email more effectively for the ways we want to work. Good luck!

Wishing you health, peace, and joy.



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