Email has become a big part of our daily life - in fact it can control our life. No longer is email just another communication tool as most of us have resorted to using it as a giant to-do list; one that anyone in the world can add to. Think about it, how many of us use our inbox to manage our day and struggle to get ahead of the flow of new emails? For every email we address, there is always a stream of new messages coming in and adding to the chaos of the inbox.
Your inbox has been exploited with work email, personal email, internal mail, and spam, resulting in continuous overflow. You think, how am I going to dig out of all these emails? You start one by one - forwarding, replying, deleting, filing and before you know it you’re in a zone. You’re unaware of the people around you, you didn’t hear the phone ring, and you’re hyper-focused. You’re on an email high. Your cognitive ability degrades because of the speed you’re operating at and your IQ drops while you multitask. But hey, you’re getting it done. Sure there is a typo or two, maybe you CC’d the wrong person along the way, but who cares - the count in your inbox is actually going down!
Wait - Is this how we are supposed to use email? How did this happen? While each email was probably sent with good intentions, the issue is the overexploitation in the number of messages being sent and received. This dilemma is a modern example of the classic “Tragedy of the Commons,” a concept illustrating the cumulative effect of multiple people acting independently. The Tragedy of the Commons classically refers to a group of farmers who shared “common” parcels of land for their cows to graze until they each individually grew their herds and rendered the common unusable. While each farmer was acting in his own reasonable self interest, the cumulative effect was the depletion of a shared resource. With this understanding, we must be mindful of the potential loss another valuable resource: email.
If email continues to be used in an overwhelming or unproductive way, we will be forced to find a new method of communication. We risk email falling victim to same cycle seen in the tragedy of commons: novelty – useful tool – exploitation – abandonment. Before we get to that point we can stop the cycle by instituting the following habits. These practices will eliminate the possibility of email extinction and restore the clarity of our inboxes.
Productive Email Habits:
- 2-minute drill: If you can address an email in less than 2 minutes, take care of it and get it out of the way.
- Look at me: Turn off those distracting pop-up email notifications. It breaks your concentration and costs an average of 4 minutes to regain focus.
In Outlook go to Tools > Options > Preferences tab > E-mail Options > Advanced E-mail Options. Under “When new items arrive in my Inbox” clear the Display a New Mail Desktop Alert (default Inbox only) check box.
- No peeking: Minimize your inbox and allow yourself to only check in from time to time during the day.
- File it away: Utilize the power of Outlook or Gmail to set up a folder system that makes sense for you. Use the rules options to help automate your organization.
- Two for you: Email is not meant to be a discussion chain. If it requires more than 2 replies consider resolving the issue with a phone call.
- Inbox hygiene: It’s OK to delete an email - really. You have a record in your sent items. If you must save an email, save the last email in the chain in the folder that makes sense for you.
- Send less, get less: If you send a lot of email you will gets lots of replies, so by sending less, you get less.
- Your time is not more important than mine: Just because you have the time to write long drawn out emails doesn’t mean I have the time to respond in a thoughtful manner. Be respectful of the time of the recipient.
- Delay is OK: It’s OK to wait a bit before replying to an email. Often time issues or concerns resolve themselves by the time you were going to respond anyway.
- CC not me: Save the CC function for only people that have asked to be copied on an email. It was not meant to keep people in the loop, in fact getting CC’d at the end of a long chain requires a lot of effort to understand an issue.
Utilize these email habits and you’ll get a productive, current inbox to help you stay ahead of the flow of emails that command your attention each day. It’s a matter of being mindful as to how we contribute to the problem of email overexploitation in order to bring clarity to our inboxes and help to refresh our communication strategies.