Do you feel you have too many emails in your inbox? Don’t look for a more effective way to address them — look for a way to receive fewer emails, to begin with. And surprisingly, it starts with the emails you send.
In many organizations, email is the default communication method (or a close second to instant messaging, which is no less of a problem, but that’s for another edition). The first and most important way to reduce the number of emails circulating is to stop treating this medium as the default communication option. Feel free to send an email, but only when you believe this is an effective means of communication for what you are trying to achieve.
Merely asking yourself this question will reduce the number of emails you send and, as a result, the number of emails you receive.
What could be an alternative? The apparent alternatives are instant messaging (which is a slippery slope) or face-to-face, direct communication. But there are other options too. How about writing what you have to say in a predefined shared location and allowing people to pull the information (as opposed to pushing it to them)? This approach is not intrusive and therefore creates less noise and interruptions.
Whatever method you choose, be sure to genuinely consider the alternatives and use email only when it has a clear benefit compared to other methods.
Decided to write an email? Great! Write it, by all means. But do you really have to send it right away? Does it require such a level of immediacy? How about writing the email and keeping it as a draft until the end of the day? This simple technique can actually do wonders to the quality and quantity of the emails you send (and receive).
Just before the end of your working day, open your Drafts folder and review all the emails you haven’t sent. During the day, a lot has happened: you gathered new information, maybe had a few new insights, and most likely, your priorities have changed. Some of these unsent emails could be revised and updated with further information and fresh perspectives (instead of sending an update on a previously sent email). Other emails might seem much less important than they did in real-time, which means you don’t need to send them at all. Whatever the outcome is, the extra time you have to process, prioritize, and refine the emails you wrote can only improve the quality of your communication and reduce the overall time you spend on less effective threads.
I know it sounds strange. Avoiding discussions in emails? Seriously? Isn’t that why we have emails, to begin with? Well, no! Emails can be great for some things, but an in-depth discussion is not one of them. A dialogue (or even more so, a conversation with a group of people) is extremely difficult to manage, follow, and take part in when done in a textual, threaded, fractured medium such as email. If your time and focus are valuable, never have discussions over email.
Emails can be effective in creating the setup for a discussion. If you need to share information before an upcoming discussion, email is a valid option. However, to avoid the pitfall of starting the conversation over email, you need to make it clear that you expect no response to that email, not because you don’t value other opinions or additional information but because this is what the actual (face-to-face) discussion is for.
If you keep setting up the discussion separate from the actual conversation, and when you use an effective medium for the main event, you will experience more effective discussions with a clear, operative bottom line and much less energy wasted in the process.