I realized last night that I’m trapped in a co-dependent relationship with email.
Email is a fantastic invention.
In the days before the internet and email, if you wanted to talk to somebody outside of your local area code, it cost money. Either you would make a long-distance call, which cost by the minute, or you’d mail a letter or package, which cost postage.
If you were really lucky, you could send a fax, which cost less than postage but still cost money.
Then email came along, ensuring unlimited communication with everyone you know for only the cost of your internet subscription. This can be an extremely useful tool for staying in contact with friends, family, or co-workers in satellite offices.
Sharing photos of the kids with grandma and grandpa, catching up with high school acquaintances, or simply writing a pen pal is made easier with email. Its cheap, eliminating the monetary barriers of older communication mediums, and its easy, which allows everybody to do it.
Email is awesome. That is, until, just like anything else it gets abused. And email is super mega easy to abuse the shit out of.
Its one reason spam is so prevalent; email offers an essentially free method of communicating offers and deals (and scams) to limitless human beings simultaneously. Its so cheap that one buyer can represent a break even, and two represents a profit, despite an audience of thousands or millions.
Now think about your own friends and co-workers. How many times in the last 5 years have you gotten a chain email, multiple emails in rapid succession from the same person with a single different funny picture attached, or the exact same email sent twice in a row?
How many times have your co-workers hit “Reply All” by accident?
When people like me say they are frustrated with email (or, in my case, “I fucking hate email”), what they’re really saying is that they’re frustrated with the people sending them emails. Because people sending you emails, generally speaking, are soulless, terrible human beings that thrive on your pain.
Or something like that.
So what’s the solution here? One big problem with email is that you’re susceptible to getting shitty emails from literally anybody on planet earth who can trip over a keyboard and accidentally type your email address and click “send”. When the problem is other people, you have to come up with a solution to your own email system.
Because - and I’ll be honest here, because this is fucking important - if you’re reading this, you suck at email.
If you are a living, breathing human being, the odds are pretty high that you suck at sending email. The odds are even better, unfortunately, that you suck at RECEIVING email, which is a problem since, as we’ve established, anybody on Planet Earth is capable of tripping over a keyboard and hitting “send”. Being bad at sending email is bad enough; its a great way to alienate co-workers and get a lot of “lost” invitations to family reunions and events, but being bad at receiving email?
That’s where the pain lives.
So you need to get better at email.
The first thing you need to learn about email is that it works like any other thing you do that you’re good at. Just like you needed to practice hitting a golf ball, throwing darts, saying the alphabet backwards, or reciting Pi to 500 digits, you have to practice to get good at email.
And like those other things, you need to get a system. For golf, its developing and practicing a swing that will allow you to make solid contact on a round ball with a thin, semi-flexible, awkwardly weighted stick. For getting better at email, its about developing an organizational system that works for you.
I subscribe to the Inbox: Zero school of email management. There’s been some hagiography about it, which I’ve done a lot of, and its been twisted by idiots on Twitter to emphasize the “Zero” aspect (if you enjoy self-flagellation, do a Twitter search for “Inbox Zero” on a Friday afternoon; its crazy-making), but at its core, Inbox: Zero is about processing information every time you collect it.
Second, you need to learn that email is a communication medium, not a communication repository.
If your email server went down 5 minutes before you got in to work, would you be able to get your work done? Would you have all the information you needed to do your job?
Would you even know what you were supposed to be working on in the first place?
If you answered “no” to any of those questions, you are begging for trouble. You might as well get in your time machine, go back to 1987, and call Mike Tyson a sissy. It will hurt less.
When you get an email on Monday updating the time for your Friday meeting, don’t leave it in your inbox until Friday as a reminder of your meeting; open up iCal, Google Calendar, your day planner, or whatever calendar you use, make a note for Friday about the change in time, and then GET RID OF THE EMAIL. Doesn’t that feel better? You have one less email to sift through in your inbox, making it easier to process the next batch of emails (because you don’t have to sift past this one; this one is already processed). Additionally, and more importantly, if Friday is Email Doomsday and you can’t get your email, you still, at the very least, know when your meeting is.
People who are really good at email? They make notes about things like what the meeting is about, who will be there, who is running it, and any questions they have, and they do it as far away from their email inbox as possible.
Because people who are really good at email understand that email is a communication medium and not a repository. It is designed to share information, not store it.
Third, you can’t fix other people. You can, however (and in the industry, we call this “burying the lead”, so pay attention), fix their expectations of the email medium.
Because other people suck at email, they do dumb things like check for new mail every five minutes, leave their inbox up all day, set a growl notification, and then expect everybody around them to do the same thing.
Setting aside the fact that checking your email every 5 minutes allows for the possibility of 24,000 potential interruptions during your work-year, and setting aside that leaving email open all day with an audible or visible notification system turns your inbox into a defacto chat system, the worst thing this does is create an expectation that everybody else does this too.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this before, but most human beings have trouble putting things in context outside of their own experience; when your experience is checking email every five minutes, its very easy to acquire the expectation that everyone in your team is doing the same thing. So you need to break that illusion for your friends and co-workers. How?
By telling them.
At this point, everybody who emails me regularly knows the following items are true:
1) I process my email every time I check it.
2) I check my email no more than 4 times per working day.
3) I will do everything in my power to avoid sending an email longer than 5 sentences.
4) In the event that I cannot fit what I want to say in 5 sentences, I will ask to schedule a call to talk about it.
5) Do not ever forward me a chain email.
They know this because I have told them. It took 5 minutes and we never have to talk about it again. It is just understood that this is how I use email.
Admittedly, when you’re on a team, this can be tricky. When one person on the team is using the tool differently, that can cause problems. To that, I would say “hmmmm, yeah, why don’t you carve out the time to talk it over with your team and come up with some best practices for email communication in your team?”
The response, because I’ve said that exact thing before, is usually some combination of stuttering and mumbling and grudging agreement.
Email is fucking hard. I know it is, because I’m pretty good at it and I still struggle with it. For instance, I only just realized that when I need to defer1 an email, I can use Trello for that. That’s actually the thing that set off my tweet spree last night.
Yup, even the email pros have trouble with this sometimes. But we’re here to help.2
Thanks for reading.
I appreciate you