A Quick Guide to Email: Not Being
If you’re reading this, odds are you are a knowledge worker whose time is very valuable and who requires large chunks of uninterrupted time in order to do whatever it is you are being paid to do.  You aren’t cranking widgets.  Instead, you’re trying to discover the history and social significance of widgets across cultural contexts, or you’re trying to design a revolutionary new machine to produce widgets, or you’re looking for ways to improve the widget supply chain, or you’re working for an upstart start-up beta-testing widget 2.0.  Your time is valuable and interruptions can be extremely costly.  Not surprisingly, email is probably your #1 daily time-waster.  This article will take a slightly different tack.  Instead of offering suggestions for dealing with incoming email, I’m going to offer a few tips for not being “That Guy” who is constantly wasting everyone else’s time with email.

Email has changed the way that people communicate.  It has made it much, much easier to send and receive important information.  It has also made it much, much easier to send and receive time-wasting nonsense.  The cruel irony is that since important information requires so much more careful thinking, the proportion of workplace communication consisting of time-wasting nonsense has probably risen.  The amount of careful thinking required for important information and time-wasting nonsense might remain unchanged, but since the cost of transmission is now essentially zero, the relative cost of time-wasting nonsense has fallen.  Therefore, time-wasting nonsense consumes a larger share of workplace (indeed, total) communication.  So here are a few ways you can be an agent of change.

Don’t Forward That Message.

Did someone just send you an email suggesting that Bill Gates is driving around with his lights off so that he track down people who flash their lights at him, knock them out with “perfume samples,” rob them, and donate the proceeds to a charity that will help find a missing teenage girl from Philadelphia so she can testify before Congress to see that “In God We Trust” remains on US currency because if it doesn’t, “Touched By an Angel” will be forever banned from TV?  A couple of things are true about this email:

  1. It’s probably a lie, and this can easily be verified at www.snopes.com.
  2. Even if it isn’t, it’s probably outside the ability of anyone you’re sending the forward to to do anything about.  The relevance and importance of an email is an increasing function of the degree to which it contains actionable information. It is possible that I may someday wake up in a bathtub full of ice with both kidneys removed if I don’t take certain precautionary steps.  This is extremely unlikely, and the potential email forwarder should not mistake what is possible from what is probable.  Just because something could happen doesn’t mean it will.

Don’t Send Mass Requests to Distribution Lists Indiscriminately.

Seriously.  Don’t.  Internal distribution lists were created to help people communicate mission-critical information to everyone on the list.  Do you have a friend who is looking for an apartment?  Need to find a home for a stray cat?  Use Craigslist, not the everyone@yourcompany.com distribution list.  These messages do convey information that some people find useful but that a lot of other people don’t.

Get the Email Monkey Off Your Back.

This is standard advice among people who want to control their information inflow.  It’s also great advice for people who want to control their information output, too.  Specifically, it’s a great way to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of your information output.  Staying constantly engaged with email increases the number of opportunities you have to produce garbled, noisy communication, while being judicious about your email is a good way to prevent yourself from abusing a friend or colleague’s precious mental energy. The popular “email monkey” metaphor is appropriate for another reason.  Monkeys are notorious for throwing fecal matter.  Common courtesy demands that you not throw a digital version of the same thing.

Establishing expectations is also important.  I’ve run into a couple of snafus because people expect me to be connected at all times.  It’s true that this created some trouble, but communicating to people that I’m not always and everywhere available was worth it.  Further, for the prospective time-wasting emailer, it is important to remember that when you waste someone else’s time you invite them to waste yours. If you get a lot of stupid emails, this might be in part due to the fact that people know they can contact you at any time and get an immediate response.

Ask Whether Your Email Is Important.

Are you asking someone for information that could be looked up easily?  Even if it isn’t, are you sure that what you’re asking for is the best use of the recipient’s time?  If you’re asking a subordinate to prepare a brief on how the sock industry performed last year, are you being clear in what you’re asking for?  Do they trust that their time isn’t being wasted?  If the answer to any of these is “no,” then re-read and re-think the email you’re about to send.

Build Good Email Habits By Starting Small.

We all produce a great deal of “Ill Communication”.  It’s a byproduct of the digital age.  When you have a few free minutes, look in your “sent items” folder for the number of emails you sent yesterday.  At least one of those was probably unnecessary, so you can probably save your company and yourself time and energy by trying to reduce that number by one.  During your weekly review (you are doing a weekly review, aren’t you?), try to calculate the number of emails you send in an average day and try to reduce that average.  The next week, try to reduce that average by one.  I would guess that most people could cut their email output by ten percent or so and maintain or even increase their productivity, all other things remaining equal.

The problem with email is that it allows the email sender to treat everyone’s attention as if it were common property. This produces a predictable “tragedy of the commons” whereby everyone’s attention is being over-exploited.  The norms of courtesy for email communication are still being developed, and it is important for people to learn how to respect others’ time and attention.  For the email-ee, it is important to show people how to do this by being diligent about ensuring that they do not encroach on your private property: your time and your attention.

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