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Manage information overload to save time and money
E-mail is one of the most useful and efficient business applications ever developed. However, many people today dread the chore of sorting through an inbox crammed with messages that don't concern them and spam they don't want. In fact, research shows that North American office workers waste up to twenty hours every week sorting and managing their e-mail messages, causing more productivity loss than gain. Finally, there's a ...
Manage information overload to save time and money
E-mail is one of the most useful and efficient business applications ever developed. However, many people today dread the chore of sorting through an inbox crammed with messages that don't concern them and spam they don't want. In fact, research shows that North American office workers waste up to twenty hours every week sorting and managing their e-mail messages, causing more productivity loss than gain. Finally, there's a straightforward guide dedicated to helping workers and organizations tame the e-mail monster and take back their time.
Managing Your E-mail is a simple, accessible reference for workers and organizations that want to get the most out of this ubiquitous and sometimes overwhelming method of communication. With new strategies for dealing with e-mail inefficiencies and practical tips on getting and staying organized, it will free up hours of time each week for what's really important. It examines the categories and patterns of e-mail misuse and presents practical, research-based explanations, solutions, and quick tips on topics such as:
* Best practices for responding to e-mail
* When to choose more traditional communication methods over e-mail
* How to structure an e-mail for high-impact
* How to craft more readable and understandable messages
* Legal pitfalls to avoid
* Common e-mail myths
* How to reduce e-mail volume in your organization
E-mail differs from every other form of communication
we've ever known. It is direct, global, and usually (but
not always) one-to-one, yet it lacks the personal touch of
a handwritten letter. Much like television and radio, people
often use e-mail to broadcast messages to a wide group of disparate
individuals. However, e-mail triggers a response from
recipients in a way that broadcast media cannot.
E-mail has had a tremendous impact on our work lives. It is
hard to believe that something so inanimate can evoke such
strong reactions, as "I love it" or "I hate it." What is it about
electronic mail that causes such diverse feelings to surface?
The late communications theorist Marshall McLuhan
(1911-1980) predicted e-mail's legacy in the 1960s. He looked
for patterns between society and technology advances and believed
that each new advance in communication created a shift
in the way that we lived, worked, and played. His statement,
"We shape the tools and they in turn shape us," was based on
observations of how driven andhungry society was becoming
to develop new technologies. As our acceptance of electronic
mail shows, society was equally ready to embrace them and look
for ways to adopt them for our overall pleasure and benefit.
We welcomed e-mail as a productivity tool that would connect
us to the world and create new freedoms and efficiencies. It
now appears that e-mail is managing the pace of our work, slowing
us down in the process through longer, not shorter work
hours. In other words, we allow e-mail to dictate too large a part
of our work routines. Perhaps it's because e-mail is constantly at
work that, more and more, we are as well. This current situation
in our workplaces may place us exactly where McLuhan predicted
we would be-managing the changes and tensions that
new electronic communications impose for our betterment.
Many of us experience a seeming lack of control over electronic
mail. We do not use e-mail uniformly. Some thrive on its
use, checking their inboxes constantly, while others see e-mail
as a low-priority communication channel, checking it infrequently.
Most of us are somewhere in between, trying to balance
the demands of work and the demands of e-mail.
As with other communication channels at work, use of
e-mail has brought about the development of a unique set
of usage patterns that color our habits, behaviors, and attitudes
toward the device itself. We have developed a love-hate relationship
with our favorite communication channel. We have
also surrounded e-mail with our perceptions on its purpose and
indeed the reason for its very existence. For instance, many
people felt that e-mail would signal the end of paper in offices.
The reality, as we all know, is quite different. This aspect is covered
later in the chapter when we address the many myths
about e-mail in the workplace.
E-mail is a fascinating and curious tool. I'm not sure
whether it came with its own set of quirks and wonders for us
to explore or whether these naturally developed. Regardless, we
do find ourselves committing some alarming faux pas when we
press the send button. Through my research, I have noted what
many respondents have said are the various games people seem
to play with electronic mail. This chapter is designed to poke a
bit of fun at our fascination with it. We explore some of the
commonly held beliefs about e-mail and identify behaviors to
make sense of some of the situations we face every day. You may
see yourself in these pages, and you will no doubt recognize the
patterns that emerge. It is through identifying these patterns
that we more deeply understand the sources of our feelings and
frustrations with workplace e-mail.
Have you ever received a follow-up e-mail or phone call asking
if you had received an original e-mail? Or better yet, something
I call the "creative" follow-up-a second e-mail that states that
you may not have received the first one because of a sender
error. E-mail's instantaneous nature has created a set of high
expectations in the workplace. This instant scenario is mapped
from the impatient sender's perspective in Figure 1.1.
Most people assume that because many of us have laptop
computers, dial-up access at home, and personal digital assistants
(PDAs), we should be able to receive and respond to
work-based e-mails anytime and anywhere. Such expectations
only increase the tension in the communications process. If
you tend to think of e-mail simply as a hybrid of written and
oral forms of communication, then a typical receiver's expectation
for a response follows the pattern shown in Figure 1.2.
According to my research on e-mail management, the
majority of us process our incoming mail within 48 hours or
sooner, if we know a message is high priority. As we see from
Figure 1.2, the time it takes for us to process e-mail messages
is not less than it is for written and oral communication because
the e-mail medium itself does not affect the amount of
consideration that a decision requires. In fact, many of us will
deliberately wait to respond to an e-mail message if we want to
give an issue greater consideration. Even though e-mail does
not directly affect our decision-making process, we feel pressure,
both external and internal, to respond to e-mail messages
as quickly as possible. E-mail has essentially become communication
How do you tend to regard an e-mail about a routine matter
that an employee or colleague sends to your work e-mail
during the middle of the night or over the weekend? If the
sender is traveling across time zones, is preparing to be away
from the office (or returning), is simply known at times to be a
night owl, or is the CEO, this may not seem unusual.
However, if there are no such circumstances, you might
react negatively. You may wonder if the person is trying to impress
you or if your colleague is working too hard or is just in-efficient.
Many executives have told me that while they may
review and process e-mail over the weekend, they will not send
responses until Monday. We discuss this practice in more detail
in Chapter 3.
THE 10 TEMPTATIONS OF E-MAIL
Just as e-mail has caused an unspoken tension in the workplace
because of unrealistic expectations for instant response, it
has also created and/or magnified other problems, which we
discuss next as the 10 temptations of e-mail.
Have you ever noticed how e-mail use, or rather misuse, can
bring out the worst in people? This is e-mail's dark side. There
are as many cyber sins people commit using e-mail as there are
human characteristics; the good news is that I managed to
group these offenses into only 10 broad categories. Even better
news is that you'll doubtless be able to identify with the 10
temptations I've highlighted, a collection of many behaviors we
have seen in others and reactions that we feel during an e-mail
stress moment. As you read through the book, you will see these
temptations discussed in detail along with solutions for each.
For now, view this list as a tidy package designed to compress
your collective viewpoints and to encourage better e-mailing
habits in all of us.
The Temptation to Send
The tendency to send a message without regard to its significance
is based on the mistaken belief that people will read
everything that you send and that everything you send is worth
reading. It's a sort of narcissistic tendency that only the e-mail
communication channel can satisfy. Such e-mail messages can
run the gamut from "I loved this, so will you," to multiple copies
of the same company wide e-mail, to the cute homilies and kind
thoughts for the day, such as "please send to 10 friends, or you
will have a bad day." Many of us receive up to a dozen or more
of these messages every day and wish we didn't.
The Temptation to Respond
Usually, we just don't know how to respond to these trivial messages.
At times, there is an emotional or social need to somehow
fill the communication void. Common mistakes include sending
a thank you response to acknowledge receipt of the e-mail.
It gets worse when the you're welcome e-mail arrives in our
inbox. Another common mistake is sending the appreciation
e-mail: "Thanks for sending me this information; you can be assured
I will give it my full attention." A message like this creates
an expectation that at some point you will address the message
more fully. It also serves to encourage more sending just to get
The Temptation to Broadcast
At times, this issue defies logical explanation. Distribution lists
are a convenient time saver when critical information needs to
go to several people. The real problem here is: Which person for
which issues? If 10 people from a list of 100 need to receive a
message, that is, "send in your forms," why does everyone get it?
Or better yet, why are "all employee" e-mails forwarded by some
managers with their own direction to read it because it's important?
One survey respondent told me: "In Wilmington, I don't
need to know that the bathrooms are broken in Minneapolis."
The Temptation to Treat People with Disrespect
This habit can be akin to office tyranny-we send employees
an urgent e-mail just to determine how long it takes them to
respond or when they are arriving at work. Most of the time,
however, this habit relates to a lack of basic politeness in
e-mail discourse. There are some people whom you may want
to keep at e-mail distance just because of this sort of behavior.
However, adding a salutation, such as the recipient's
first name, and a closing, such as "Thanks," can significantly
change the message's tone. We practice civility in person and
over the phone, so why not in e-mail?
The Temptation to React
Even though we can put any type of communication into a text
form, this doesn't mean that the message belongs in that form.
Some e-mail is composed in such a terse, brusque manner that
we tend to react emotionally first, then think about it later.
While we are emotionally charged, our fingers are doing the
talking over the keyboard, and we triumphantly poke the send
button, signifying the "back at you" response. The satisfaction
generally lasts 5 to 10 minutes, and then we come to the realization
that this might not have been a good idea. Worse yet,
we have to undertake face-to-face damage control.
The Temptation to Hide behind E-mail
Have you ever received an apology by e-mail? Have you ever received
praise by e-mail? Some employees have actually had their
jobs terminated by e-mail. These types of e-mail are simply bad
form and tend to expose the sender's reluctance to communicate
with us in person. Worse, if the sender is a senior executive,
these antics can color our attitudes toward the organization.
These types of messages can be a serious catalyst for seeking
other employment. It is important to keep in mind that e-mails
with negative content can be like bombs-very explosive.
The Temptation toward Mutiny
The sound of a new message arriving puts you into a dilemma:
Should you interrupt your work or break your concentration from
a meeting or phone call? Do you ever wonder why a colleague or
coworker sitting two offices away prefers to send you an e-mail,
rather than dropping into your office? Or why someone has suddenly
copied you into a set of electronic messages? Again, you
are not alone here. These situations all cry out for the human
moment when high-touch is preferable to high-tech.
The Temptation to Become Addicted
Some among us prefer e-mail to all other forms of communication.
These are people who previously favored memos as their
primary form of contact and only used the telephone when absolutely
necessary. Voice mail was a godsend for them, because
they didn't need to waste their time on banal pleasantries. Some
of these users are simply hard-core technology enthusiasts, who
become so enamored of their monitors and keyboards that
they're mesmerized by them.
Some people attend the meeting, but in reality are simply
waiting for the e-mail to arrive. Others see receiving e-mail as
a badge of honor and a demonstration of their importance.
The cavalier few among us draw attention to themselves by
handling their e-mails in public, while commuting on trains
and planes. We need to beware of sprouting into technological
The Temptation to Send Attachments
This one comes straight from the annals of "If you can, do so."
At a recent workshop on e-mail, I was asked, "What do you
think about receiving an e-mail with 25 attachments?" Luckily
I caught myself in time, before responding, "Delete." Somehow
people have gotten the crazy notion that while e-mails should
be short, attachments are a free-for-all; a bonus gift in which
everyone will surely want to share. This is discussed more fully
in Myth #6.
The Temptation to Cry Uncle
If there is one message to shout from our office rooftops, it is
that it's normal and perfectly acceptable to feel overwhelmed,
especially if you are receiving more than the current North
American average of 48 e-mails per day. The sense of being
swamped becomes more acute as volume increases and reaches
almost cosmic proportions at 80 to 100 per day.
Sometimes people feel that it is their fault that they cannot
handle or absorb the information, and therefore something
must be wrong with them. That is not true-the current e-mail
volume is unreasonable and counterproductive. Read on; this
book will help!
DEBUNKING E-MAIL MYTHS
Now that we have uncovered some of the idiosyncratic e-mail
habits in the workplace, let us dispel some of e-mail's larger-than-life
Myth #1 E-mail Saves Time
Have you ever found yourself sitting at the keyboard in the office
and suddenly feeling that you can't type the message you
want to send? You are not alone.
Many people experience this phenomenon from time to
time-I call it the "keyboard stare"-a sudden state in which
your fingers just won't type. Meanwhile, the minutes tick by,
and so does your focus on this task and perhaps others. This situation
surfaces generally because we want to talk our message
rather than type it. We may want to express a number of ideas
in a dialogue fashion but unfortunately e-mail seems more
convenient. Also, there is no doubt that e-mail provides an invaluable
capability to send the same message to many parties,
thus saving time spent in separate transmissions. The problem
is that now everyone gets too many messages, and so we must
spend even more time managing our inboxes.
If we quantify the e-mail communication channel in light of
the other three-face-to-face, telephone, and paper-based-then
e-mail represents a 33 percent increase in communication opportunity.
Excerpted from Managing Your E-mail
by Christina Cavanagh
Copyright © 2003 by Christina Cavanagh.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
CHAPTER 1. E-mail's Quirks and Wonders
Why e-mail makes us work differently.
CHAPTER 2. The Legal Face of E-mail
Navigate the pitfalls and stay out of the courthouse.
CHAPTER 3. Using E-mail Judiciously
It's okay to pick up the phone.
CHAPTER 4. The Inbox
How to manage your inbox like a pro and reduce e-mail volume in your organization.
CHAPTER 5. The Outbox
A guide to good citizenry on the e-mail frontier.
CHAPTER 6. The Smoking Gun
Take control and make e-mail work for you.