When To Use (And Not To Use) E-Mail And Boost Personal Productivity

(this article was originally published on Bnet at http://bnet.co.uk

Don Tapscott, co-author of "wikinomics" and the man who made the phrase "paradigm shift" popular in the 1990s, was keynote speaker at a meeting organised by Accenture in Orlando, Florida in April 2008. He had also invited a member of the generation Y cohort to talk about communications in front of a selection of client representatives. Tapscott asked this youngster, point blank: "What are you using e-mail for?" 

_ "I'm not using e-mail at all, me and my friends are on msn all the time." he replied. 
Tapscott went on: "In case you were using e-mail, what would you use it for?" 
_ "I don't know, say, to thank some friend's parents for inviting us to a party, maybe". 
E-mail is still the most popular application amongst professionals(*), and yet, our young ones don't think much of it. This is not just a generation issue but a radical change in user behaviour unfolding before our very eyes, and threatening to come into the workplace very soon. To an extent it has already happened. Instant messaging (IM) is now getting increasingly popular (**). There is an obvious requirement to use synchronous messaging versus e-mail to communicate more directly, more freely and more effectively. Yet, it's fascinating how so many business people still stick to e-mail, however inappropriately, for e-mail usage is fraught with problems, and it's not just a matter of being young or old. I described this in depth in an article about e-mail worst practices in the workplace. In this article I will describe how to use (or rather, no to use) e-mail and how collaborative/2.0 technologies can help you stay productive. 
15 tips to help you stay on top of your in-tray 
How do you feel about receiving 200 e-mails a day? Beyond a certain level, electronic messaging ceases to have a positive impact on productivity, to say the least. I would say that if I have more than 10 outstanding messages in my in-tray, I am under the impression it is my e-mail system which manages me rather than me who is managing my e-mail box. How does it feel being like a hamster in a wheel? (recommended read: the Hamster Revolution by Ken Blanchard). To cut down on the amount of e-mails that you have to deal with, and improve your productivity I would recommend a few tips and tricks: 
  • Tip #1: divert all e-mail on which you have been copied into a buffer directory (I called mine the 'purgatory'). I may access the purgatory later on, when time allows. Most of the time I find that there isn't much point in keeping most of these messages anyway,
  • Tip #2: mail over 6 month-old isn't very useful either. I either delete it or archive it, but I realised that one very seldom goes back to e-mail messages after one or two months at the most. If you do, I suggest that you build a wiki or a Ms Sharepoint space so that you can refer to these documents more easily and point other colleagues or even clients and partners to it too,
  • Tip #3: all messages should be sorted out as either:
    • Actionable: something's got to be done, more or less urgently (if it's not urgent, I will just flag the message for follow-up and will leave it my in-box but not too long),
    • Informational: it has to be read (or scanned) swiftly sorted out immediately into a folder,
    • Commercial: it's either relevant and even possibly a good deal or spam (and needs to be deleted or filtered or reported)
    • Irrelevant: (God knows there are many) it has to be deleted,
    • Inappropriate: they are e-mail messages, which are often too long and would be better replaced with a short telephone conversation,
    • Downright abusive: these are the messages in which people voice complains or grievances in public and preferably by copying a lot of other people, mostly in the high up in the hierarchy. This kind of messages is meant to harm you and your reputation and require special treatment (either discard them or try to talk to that person directly. In both cases, it's best to let sleeping dogs lie for at least a night and avoid responding immediately for fear of making matters even worse),
    • The idea is to promptly judge whether these messages belong to which category to act on them and therefore avoid being swamped.
  • Tip #4: knowing when to stop can be handy. No e-mails should be sent late at night. This is not proving that you are a dedicated professional, but rather that you are badly organised. Actually, if you were working at Microsoft for instance, the system would not even let you do this since it is considered inappropriate behaviour to write e-mails outside of business hours (messages are therefore queued by the system during these periods, also to avoid people who work across time zones to become the slaves of their e-mail box),
  • Tip #5: to avoid receiving too many messages, just don't send too many either. As a consequence, also use mobile e-mail to sort out, read and (mostly) delete messages (and not so much to send more e-mails, which in their turn will generate more replies),
  • Tip #6: e-mail messages longer than two paragraphs should not be written (to that end, I would recommend you also read Joe Robinson's e-tool bill of rights,
  • Tip #7: if you are using Outlook, avoid the 'send immediately when connected' option at all cost. In case you press the button too fast, you will always be able to retrieve the message before it is processed by the server,
  • Tip #8: avoid leaving your mailbox open all day long. It is actually best to devote special time for e-mail usage rather than using it on a continuous basis, since this is very disruptive. If what you are after in instantaneous, synchronous communications, instant messaging and also the good old telephone is much preferable to e-mail,
  • Tip #9: complex messages should always be given time. If you receive a message longer than 2 paragraphs, there are many chances that a quick phone call or an instant message might solve the issue in a much better way than a long-winded written complex response,
  • Tip #10: activity reporting has to be transparent, accessible and updated. E-mail is inappropriate when it comes to send reports and status updates because such reports cannot be allowed to sit in anyone's e-mail. All project members need to be able to access, or even update, the status report themselves. I see too many people using e-mail as a repository for important files which would be best kept on a wiki for instance. E-mail is an inappropriate system as a repository. Instead wikis should be used or Sharepoint spaces, Google docs, or similar enterprise technologies such as bluekiwi,
  • Tip #11: never ever use e-mail to set up meetings unless coupled with an Outlook calendar (and flagging your meeting as "tentative") or unless you have been able to talk to the participants beforehand. I have a much better idea for you: it is a Swiss applet, and God knows the Swiss are competent when it comes to time management. Use http://doodle.ch to invite people to meetings or even directly within Facebook by adding the doodle applet to your Facebook profile. You will save dozens of useless e-mail messages and will have improved your productivity dramatically,
  • Tip #12: writing contracts or performing other complex tasks which involve several participants is not compatible with the asynchronous model of e-mail messaging. Various revisions will thus be sent via e-mail and pile up in your in-tray and you will spend many an hour trying to reconcile the differences. This is not an efficient way of doing business. Instead, web conferencing should be used in order to enable people to work together on the same document and update it in real-time,
  • Tip #13: sending large files and bulky attached files is not always a good option. Most of the time, it is far more effective to store the files on a wiki and embed a link to this file within your e-mail message,
  • Tip #14: avoid asking open or complex questions via e-mail. If your message requires a very complex response, writing an email might take a long time and chances are that the respondent will be discouraged when he sees your message. First resort to IM to probe your colleague and if your first filtering questions still find no simple answers, you had better call him or her by phone,
  • Tip #15: keep all personal e-mails in a separate mailbox, and preferably not on your laptop or desktop (use webmail instead). No personal e-mail should ever be sent from your professional mailbox (it's not just a matter of productivity, but also a matter of protecting your privacy).

As a conclusion, remember to use collaborative and synchronous technologies each time interaction and/or transparency is needed or when reporting and complexity are involved. E-mail can be very useful but if it is wrongly used, it could easily have a negative impact on your productivity.

you can read more about bad e-mail usage in the workplace by going to:

(*) in 2006, 99.43% of interviewees of the Microsoft survey were using e-mail on a permanent basis (2250 interviewees, survey carried out by sociologist Richard Collin on behalf of Microsoft)

(**) 24% of interviewed professionals in a 2006 Microsoft survey were using IM; between September and October 2008, 63% of the respondents at an Orange group declared they were using IM professionally and 43% at home (source: internal Orange Business survey, over a sample made of 795 interviewees).

Yann Gourvennec

I specialize in information systems, HighTech marketing and Web marketing. I am author and contributor to numerous books and the CEO of Visionary Marketing. As such, I contribute regularly on this blog for Orange Business account on cloud computing and cloud storage topics.