Mastering E-Mail

E-mail.  It’s a tremendous tool at the center of most professionals’ lives.  It can also consume our entire day, leaving us feeling drained and defeated come 5:00pm.  If we’re going to be productive, we’ve got to learn to tame this beast.  Here are a few tips that may help.

Have A System – Being intentional about how we handle e-mail is a huge first step.  If you’re familiar with phrases like “The Two Minute Rule” and “Delete, Delegate, Defer, Do”, you’re already on your way.  If not, then find a system – any system – for processing e-mails, rather than trying to solve this problem by the seat of your pants.

Use The Telephone – Remember that old fashioned technology called a telephone?  It’s superior to e-mail in some ways in that it allows for instantaneous two-way communication.  Consider you and a friend trying to arrange lunch together.  Coordinating date, time and location could easily require a dozen e-mails back and forth.  A phone conversation, with both people looking at their calendars, would probably accomplish the objective in 60 seconds.

Instant Message Selectively – There are times, particularly in intra-office communication, when an instant message or two can eliminate a bevy of e-mails.  They’re a convenient way to quickly confirm a detail, set up a meeting on the spur of the moment, deal with a sudden change of plans, or update someone on an evolving situation. But beware! IMs can lead to bantering back and forth and become a time-waster of their own, so make sure to only use them when appropriate.

Think Before You Type – Many e-mails and their replies are simply unnecessary.  They’re the technological version of small talk, and at least as disruptive to our schedules.  It’s good to ask ourselves if that e-mail we plan to initiate is worth our time and that of the intended recipients.  If it isn’t, it’s best to refrain.  And not every e-mail we receive requires a reply.  Sometimes the Delete key is the better alternative.

Choose Your Targets – Too often, people who really don’t need to be are carbon copied on e-mails.  These CC’d recipients may then feel obligated to reply themselves, perpetuating the cycle.  Nip that in the bud by being careful to include only those who can truly benefit by what you’ve written.

“Reply All” With Caution – Let’s say that Carla in the accounting department of a small company brought brownies to the office.  She sends an e-mail to all 20 of her co-workers, asking who wants one.  If everybody gives their answer via the Reply All button, 400 e-mails have been generated.  So before clicking, consider whether or not  the whole distribution list really needs to know what you have to say.

Mind Your Manners … But Not Too Much – It’s nice to be polite, and it makes Mom happy, but it sure can fill up the In Box.  If you swap e-mails with the same people on a regular basis, consider having an agreement that you’re mutually thankful for everything each of you do.  Then you won’t feel obligated to reply “Thank You” several times a day.  NOTE: If some really stellar work comes along, feel free to break this rule.  Mom will be extra proud.

Take An E-Mail Hiatus – When more desperate measures are in order, avoid e-mail altogether for a time.  Turn off the program if you must, or just discipline yourself not to go there.  If the thought of this makes you perspire, consider setting an auto reply that tells people you are not currently checking e-mail and gives them a time when you’ll be back in touch.  Your auto response can even provide an alternate means of contacting you if the matter is high priority, such as a telephone number or co-worker.  This should satisfy just about anyone.

The tools described above can send you on your way toward being efficiently connected, productively engaged, and feeling good about workdays well spent.  Soon you’ll be a master craftsman in the art of e-mail.

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