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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Email: Blessing and Curse

          Email is one of the most burdensome marvels we’ve ever had in the workplace.
          It’s hard to remember what business communication was like before email swept our world 10 or 15 years ago. It’s so easy now, and because it’s so easy it has choked the channels.
          The downside comes because “easy” does not mean “better.” In fact it almost always means “worse.” Easy means less demanding for the originator . . . and a transfer of demand to the receiver. Not a good idea, when the whole transaction was not the receiver’s idea to start with.
          Studies of email volume relegate a large portion to the category of useless, another sizable bunch to the seductive group of interesting but also useless, the lesser number that you’ll save for later today and the small minority that call for immediate action.

          Think about investing a modest amount of attention in managing this.
          Stand back for a moment from your daily flood of email messages. It’s a glut. Look at all those things. How do they contribute to the productivity of your day? Do you have something of a choking feeling when you open your inbox and feel obligated to sort through?
          Don’t have the feeling, and don’t sort through. You’re better off being something between the grim reaper and the thoughtful scholar.
You act on autopilot because you’ve got a process based on a plan. You deal with email as a tool of your profession, and you don’t confuse idle curiosity with professional time investment.
The first priority is hot items. What needs action . . . now? Do it.

Now you shift to proactive mode. You become the party of the first part. You send the email messages you need to send, initiating various matters of concern. Then you move away from email, on to your next job priority.
Sometime around the middle of your workday, you visit your email again. You repeat the morning’s routine.
Then, as there’s a bit less urgency now, you do some brushcutting. You ride the delete key, killing every item whose author, subject line or first lines show no sign of value. If the writer made no effort to engage your attention, the message deserves the same on your part.
It’s useful to remind yourself that email is so easy to write and send that it too frequently is sloppy, a vehicle of low-value communication. If the sender really meant it, you’ll hear from that person again.

The flip side of this issue is what it tells you about how to behave as an email originator.
When thoughtful people pop online with a few minutes to check in between other demands of the job, what do they look for? It’s not the subject line (although effective emailers learn to tune those precious few words carefully).
No, more than that, you look for the sender. There are people in your worklife who matter to you, a lot. Their names pop out at you from the inbox when their messages are in there. For whatever reason, their messages are automatically top priority in your work.
The most important senders, normally, are those who never email you unless there’s a reason that both of you consider important. You want to be that high-priority person, in the inboxes of all the people with whom you have email relationships.

So you never send trivial emails. You don’t use email when another communication method is more appropriate. You never include a recipient who does not have a direct, immediate, valuable reason to get this information from you now, in this way. Your email partners know that, and respond accordingly.
          You can do things with this workplace communication vehicle that are amazingly useful. You also can be astonishingly self-destructive. Achieving the one and not the other requires just a little professional thought.
          Take your pick.

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