Myths about how to best do email abound. Some are explicitly stated and drummed into your head, and some are the unspoken expectations of the modern corporate world. To succeed at tackling the big email time sink and making email woes a thing of your past, you need to acknowledge these myths for what they are, and implement a system that works.
Systems need good foundations in order to work, and when an effective email management system fails, it’s usually because the user couldn’t separate these myths from their approach.
1. Good organization is the best way to stay on top of email.
It’s not. Turning emails into actions and archiving everything else is the best way to stay on top of email. Organizing each message into a different folder might be handy for other reasons, such as digging out a paper trail for your lawyer when you get sued, but it’s not handy for “staying on top of” email. There is no correlation between the folder your message is in (unless we’re talking about the inbox) and your level of email efficiency.
2. You need to reply to every message.
Some messages simply don’t need a reply. You should only reply if you have something valuable to add to the communication. Sure, you might feel the sting of guilt as you get used to this concept and stop replying to every message you get, but if you want to reclaim your time, it’s an adjustment you must make.
If there are people you communicate with regularly who expect a reply even when you have nothing to add, you need to educate them rather than succumb to their demands. The biggest problem with email productivity is that people simply won’t put up a little resistance to those who don’t know how to use email effectively.
3. You need to reply to every message… as soon as you receive it.
Worse than myth number two is the myth that you should reply to every message the second you get it. Nothing is accomplished by this. There are always exceptions to every rule—if you work in a newsroom, waiting an hour for information is like waiting a week—but they probably don’t apply to you. Don’t find excuses to reply to every message every minute of the day; just say no.
Replying to every message you receive is a time sink. Replying to every message as soon as you receive it is sheer irresponsibility—ironically, many people do this to create the illusion of productivity and responsibility.
4. Emails should be about (insert number) words.
The appropriate length for an email is dependent on what the email is about and how much the recipient already knows about the topic, and how much they need to know about the topic in order to act on it. If it doesn’t need to be more than a sentence, never make it more than a sentence. If the email is incomplete in three or four paragraphs, keep writing until the email is complete, but make every word count and edit like crazy before you hit send.
Part of maintaining good email productivity is maintaining good email etiquette; you could call it the “email karma” rule.
5. Email is a beast that can’t be tamed.
Sure it can be. The technology is never the problem; the people using it are. The question is: are you the problem person, or is it the people sending you email? Either way, there are solutions you can implement, whether they involve changing the way you think about and use email or putting up obstacles between yourself and your contacts. Auto responders are one such obstacle that will educate those who are sending you unhelpful email.
6. There’s no way to get off that pesky mailing list!
Of course there is; it’s just a matter of how far you’re willing to take the matter. Spam is illegal, remember, and if it’s truly a mailing list and not just spam from Russia, there’s a way to get your name removed (even if you have to scare the bejeezus out of them with lawyers). It may just take some time and energy. If it’s going to take you more than two minutes, you should simply set up a filter so that you never see messages from that address. If you’re looking for more time in your day, why take the hard route?
7. Prioritization is a good email productivity tool.
Prioritization is a good task management tool. If you feel like attaching a priority to an email you’ve received, it’s a good sign that you need to turn that message into an action. On the flip side, sending an email marked as high priority using the prioritization features of your email client has an equally dubious level of usefulness. Not only is there a good chance that the priority level won’t be displayed in the recipient’s email client, it’s a matter of good email etiquette to leave the priority of a given email up to the recipient and let them fit it into the context of their day.
Email was never designed to help you communicate during an emergency. If there’s an emergency that truly does require immediate attention, pick up the phone or Skype.