About two years ago, I became increasingly frustrated with email. As my team grew at work, people began copying me on everything.
Working at a large corporation, people feel the need to copy me to play CYA. There are also the friendly wankers who will commit the egregious sin of Reply All with the single word of ‘Thanks’. Stop it!
The breaking point for me was when in a corporate town hall meeting, I asked our esteemed CIO for his thoughts on email overload. He acknowledged that even he receives too much email and he was not sure of the remedy.
According to studies by McGhee Productivity Solutions, the average worker spends 2 hours a day working on email and 1 hour a day searching for information. This is more than 20% of your work day.
I receive many hundreds of emails each week and most are useless.
When I write that most of the email I receive is useless, I’m not talking about receiving spam. I get no spam at work – partly because I rarely give my work email address to an untrusted third party. For personal email, gmail is adept at getting rid of spam.
Most of my email is useless because it falls into a few categories that I can do without:
- Cover Your Ass [CYA] - This is my favorite email abuse. People feel the need to copy everyone on their emails so the harbinger of doom can say I told you so when the shit hits the fan.
- System Generated [SG] – God love system administrators. I lead three teams of 30 of them. They are well-intentioned, hard-working and upstanding people. Unfortunately, they forget that sending a ‘backup report’ every day is utterly useless since only 1% of the time is the report needed. How about publishing the report on a web site and IF I ever need i
- Distribution Lists [DLs] – These are a useful feature of email systems. Unfortunately, they are ripe for abuse as people feel the need to send everything to the DL whether or not it is pertinent.
- Reply All [RA] – This button should be disabled or removed from all corporate email clients. People who know the Rules of Email Etiquette will use the Carbon Copy [CC:] field sparingly – as an FYI. Other people feel the need to reply all to tell an individual ‘Thanks’. These people should be shot.
In short, 99% of corporate email fails the PASS check. But, it’s not just the authors of email that are wasting everyone’s time. The bigger picture is that companies rarely offer mandatory training in email features and sensible usage, the faux urgency of immediate information, and the absolutely unforgiveable absence of a sensible email policy.
So what can you do if you are not the king of your company and you cannot set the email policies?
- Read the Rules of Email Etiquette – Set a good example yourself. People will notice the change.
- Read Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee – There’s too much in this great book to cover in my little blog, but trust me – the $25 is more than worth it.
- Create a Carbon Copy Filter – I have been doing this for several months. If my name is in the CC: field of an email, it automatically gets redirected from my Inbox to my Deleted Items folder. I use this folder as a recycling bin – it’s set to archive items older than 2 weeks. I end up needing about 2 in 100 emails that are filtered. Guess what? I didn’t have to read 98 of them – time saved every day. You should probably add exceptions to the CC: rule for your supervisor[s] and important colleagues.
- Create Subject Filters – Does some yahoo on your team send the TPS reports to your team’s distribution list every week? Filter this email based on subject into your Deleted Items folder.
- Use Archive Feature – Most email clients will archive mail on a periodic basis. To use your Deleted Items as a recycle bin. set up an archive rule to archive every 2 or 4 weeks. Keep track of how often you retrieve a filtered email [sent to your Deleted Items]. For me it’s less than 5% but the 2 week archive window provides a safety net.
- Turn Off Your Email – The immediate delivery of email gives everyone a false sense of urgency. Most email does not need an immediate response. You should instruct your co-workers to call you if there is an urgent matter. So, turn off your email for a couple of hours a day and your productivity will increase.
- Set Expectations – Because of the false urgency of email, people expect everyone to respond immediately. I got sick of this expectation, so I changed the rules and added the following in my email signature. I usually respond to most emails within 24-48 hours. It cut down significantly on the number of the ‘Did you get my [original] email?’ emails.
- Stop Saving Every Email – Sure, you are the hero who can find that ONE email out of 8 bazillion that proves Bob was smoking crack on the last project. Don’t be an archivist. It’s a complete waste of time because for every 1 email you referred to from 2004, there are literally tens of thousands of other ones that you will never, ever read again.
- Stop Filing Every Email - My VP actually gave up on filing emails. Good for her. The problem is that she kept everything in her Inbox – 10,000 emails. When her Blackberry would not sync, she told the help desk guy to delete everything older than a month. Epiphany!
The bottom line is that you have to control your time to control your productivity. Have I become more militant? Yes because i felt that being the nice guy was killing me. I needed to set boundaries and after literally having an empty Inbox for several weeks [seriously, read TYBL], I am happy and sane. I’m able to focus on the task at hand and am not allowing myself to be interrupted by useless email.