Monday, January 11, 2010

Taking Back Control (of E-Mail): Part 1

Following up last week’s discussion of how e-mail has come to tyrannize our lives, John Freeman (1) has provided a few modest suggestions to help us gain back a small measure of control, at a time when the use of e-mail is expanding exponentially. For example, soon US airlines will offer e-mail service during flights; this has added significance in that if you can get wireless access 5 miles above the earth when you are travelling at 600 miles per hour, you can get it anywhere (including the top of Mt. Everest). And we need to get past one of the signal points of the book: e-mail makes us feel needed, and we treat it like we do gambling at Las Vegas (we keep checking our e-mail in the hope that we get a message that really matters, similar to playing the slots, for example). So here are a few suggestions.

1. Don’t send. This is the first, most basic, and most important step. Sending e-mail only creates more e-mail. When you don’t send a message, other people don’t have to send messages and this stops the cycle of endless unnecessary notes that fly back and forth (“Thank you.” “No, thank you,” etc. ad infinitum). This will also help you begin to ask yourself an important question: is this e-mail necessary? Does it need to arrive immediately? This will be difficult at first, and I know that I fail at this regularly, always letting someone know I received their message, often as soon as I received it. This also helps stop the endless paper(less) trail.

2. Don’t check it first think in the morning or late at night. In fact, don’t check it when you head to the bathroom, take your kids out or are spending time with your spouse. One of the real problems with e-mail is that it breaks the boundary between work and private time; you are often expected to respond to an e-mail as soon as it arrives, no matter what time it arrives. I can attest to this; when I was at NUHS I would go on vacation, place an out-of-office message on my machine with instructions as to whom to contact for an emergency, and come back to angry people who were upset I had not responded to them on the day they wrote me. We need to break the workaholic cycle, and we should not be getting e-mails from our boss or co-worker that was sent at 3am. Unless, of course, the nature of our work absolutely requires it.

3. Check it twice a day. This is nearly impossible for many people to imagine. But you can check your e-mail less than you do. E-mail interrupts our work, leading us to work in smaller and smaller chunks of times on projects, and taking our attention away from what we were doing. Set an agenda for your day.

4. Keep a written to- do list and incorporate e-mail into it. I know people use all sorts of means to track their to- do items, including day planners, Outlook reminders and calendars, other computer calendars (such as Mac’s iCalendar), and so on. I go low tech; I use a piece of paper in which I list my reminders. Using this list pulls you out of the computer and allows you (and me) to think about what I need to do to get things done, and I can then send a couple of direct e-mails to those who need to know where I am.

5. Give good e-mail. Watch Dr. Marchiori here. He does this well. Short notes back to you, direct answers to questions, no fluff, no fooling around. I appreciate this, and I do not feel I have to then send him another e-mail to let him know I got his e-mail. Keep your messages short, folks. Sometimes you can just put your entire message in the "RE:" line.

Next week, I will finish up on the ideas that Johnson brings up. I am beginning to follow them, and they do make life easier once you get past your initial hesitancy to not go and read your e-mail and respond immediately. Takes time, but worth it!

1. Freeman J. The tyranny of e-mail. New York, NY; Scribner, 2009

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