The constant sense of email overwhelming our ability to do actual work has become pervasive in the workplace. This tool designed and built to aid business and personal interaction has morphed into The Blob - a constantly growing and advancing mass that is swallowing our lives. Thankfully, there are a few defenses we can use to protect ourselves from this onslaught.
Recently, a whole slew of new email services and apps have popped up hoping to solve this question. Most if not all are built on the assumption that this problem is to be solved with the “triage” method. Basically, they are designed to allow you to stay on top your email and quickly sort through what needs attention now, and what can wait till later. Think of it as quick sorting and prioritization for you to sit down and tackle at length later. This postponing quality is central to many of these app’s services, and supports their use on mobile devices where email is ill-suited and difficult to read and respond to.
In direct opposition to this, Quartz has recently compiled and curated a list of recent academic research that shows simple steps that can be taken to stem the flow of emails and turn you into an inbox Jedi. Below is an excerpt of those suggestions:
If you want a reply, ask simple questions
People are more likely to respond to information requests—whether important or trivial—if they’re easy to address. Social messages also get a quick reply because they’re “fun.” By contrast, very important but complex messages that require a lot of work to answer often don’t get a response.
Do not disturb
On average workers allow themselves to be interrupted every five minutes by emails. Researchers concluded that this level of interruption was negatively impacting workplace productivity and drew up the following recommendations:
- Check email no more frequently than once every 45 minutes.
- Don’t cc: lots of people on messages
- Turn off incoming email notifications and set up email clients to display the sender, subject line and the first three lines of the email to make messages easier to scan and triage.
Sign the charter
Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conferences, drew up an email charter to stem the flow of flooded inboxes. The 10 rules of the charter are all intended to clamp down on how chained to our emails we’ve become. The first and fundamental principle of the charter is the onus falls on the sender to ensure the email takes the least possible amount of time to process, even if that means taking more time before sending. Other rules include avoiding replying to messages with single line messages that say things like “Great!” and not using email signatures or logos that appear as attachments.
But use something other than email if you can
Virginia Tech researcher Aditya Johri found that a strong “communication ecology”—i.e. a mix of internal blogs, instant messaging, and social networks—drastically reduces the need for email.
Workplace email training helps
A German study asked whether workplace training on best practices for email could have any impact on productivity. The training focused on three key areas—improving coping techniques for handling large volumes of incoming email, improving personal workflow, and enhancing email literacy in order to bring more clarity to communication. Roman Soucek and Klaus Moser from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg found that employee stress from being overwhelmed by their inboxes was reduced, as was the number of interruptions incurred from emails.
You don’t have to be Steve McQueen to stop the Email Blob. Just put up strict usage boundaries and rely less on the medium as your sole means of communication. If we all work together, we can reclaim our inboxes and finally get back to living.
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