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Just the other day, a co-worker was called out by another co-worker that they “weren’t answering their email quickly enough.” This comment was made even when our company employs a host of ways to contact each other immediately.

The issue that was being discussed was urgent and had to be handled that day, but the accusing party in no way handled the work as being urgent. For some reason they expected an immediate response via email, even though email is not an “immediate response” type of tool. And frankly, it should never be considered to be one especially with the types of technology we have at our disposal.

Email as mail

The way that I and many others treat email is as a piece of mail. We don’t sit in front of our mailbox all day, waiting for something to be put into it, only to take it out, create a reply, put it in an envelope, stamp, and send it off. That would be ridiculous, right? So, why should we be expected to deal with email this way?

The problem is that most people treat email this way.

It wasn’t until I was introduced to the GTD ecosystem that I found thoughts on email like that of Merlin Mann or even Leo Babauta. These guys saw email as mail, something that piles up throughout our day and then we process it. We then make decisions on what we are supposed to do next with this incoming mail; respond to it, make it a piece of reference material, trash it, etc. Once I was able to understand this way of thinking, email wasn’t an immediate response type of tool anymore. This kept me out of my inbox and allowed me to get more done as well as handle urgent issues the right way.

What about immediate issues?

I hear this a lot where I work:

“It’s my job to respond to email.”

What a sad state of affairs; a professional email responder. Actually, I would say that most anyone that says that truly means that their job is to handle immediate issues in their business; it just so happens that many people still treat email as an immediate response type of communication.

I know that we productivity nerds can’t move the immovable force of overuse of email, but we can bring some options to the table that those afflicted with immediate email action can try to employ.

The ways to handle urgency without email

Here are a few ways that you can help yourself and possibly others in your company deal with urgent matters without the use of a sea of email. These may seem dead obvious, but you will be extremely surprised at how little they are used for urgent issues:

1. Use IM

No matter what anyone says, IM isn’t just a way to chat with your friends at work (although that can be an added benefit). IM stands for instant messaging and that is exactly what it should be used for; getting a hold of someone instantly.

If you company doesn’t use IM, especially in a company where issues with customers are of utmost important, you may want to try to talk your higher-ups and put it in place. IM at work has saved a ton of time and many email messages being overlooked.

2. Use the phone

A telephone? What the hell is that? It’s that thing that is dusty, sits on the corner of your desk, and is used maybe once a day. The fact is that the phone is the best tool for getting things done quickly across far reaches.

Yes, maybe you can type 160 words per minute, but you can’t explain problems over IM or email like you can verbally. If something is super important and needs done ASAP, the phone and the next medium are the best tools to use.

3. Come see me

If you are across the office and you need something done now then go and see the person that needs to get that something done. You may want to call or IM them first to make sure that they are available, but if the issue is urgent enough, then it’s totally fine to just go and see them. Once again, speaking to someone verbally is the best way to handle urgent situations.

What’s next?

One of the hardest things you have to do to get out of the “living in your email inbox mentality”, especially for large corporations, is try to change your coworkers’ view on how to handle urgent issues. The best way to start is to tell them that you only check email a certain number of times a day (just like Mr. Vardy with his 3 times a day rule) and if they need something immediate, then either they can IM you, call, or stop over.

You may run into an issue that really isn’t urgent and your coworker thinks it is, but usually if you lay out some groundwork that email isn’t the best way to get something done quickly, they will respect your avenue for getting urgent things done.

If you work with a bunch of humans, how do you guys handle urgent matters?

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