Email is god’s gift to communication but it can be a righteous pain in the neck the third time you get “e-hugs” from someone who just wants to let you know how special you are, and by the way, please send this to 20 other people including me, or else you’ll have years of bad luck equivalent to your age. I think that the world would be a better place if the originators of those emails were struck by lightning, and their ashes buried in a deep dark vault that never saw the light of day.
In-boxes are black holes for information. Every little tit-bit that every person you know happens to find interesting, ends up in your inbox. We simply don’t have time to read every one of them, which is why out of a thousand emails, three hundred are unread. We do our best to scan for the important ones, and so pretend that we’re on top of the situation, but really we’re drowning in information overload.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that when we do get around to checking our mail, we usually do it quickly, so that we can get back to business. Our minds aren’t really on our inboxes. We let even pressing emails wash over our heads, forgetting what we’ve read about 5 minutes after we’ve done so.
That doesn’t stop us from compulsively checking for new messages though, especially if we have a system that lets us know every time a new item arrives. This means that our minds aren’t really on the task at hand either. We spend half our days in two minds and that adversely affects the quality of our work.
How do we address the problem of overflowing inboxes and prioritising information so that we can focus properly on one task at a time?
Dan Markovitz, founder and president of TimeBack Management, says that we need to realise that processing email is a task all by itself. We need to set aside some time; however long we feel we need, or can afford, to concentrate solely on our email. During this time we can file, reply and delete to our hearts’ content, so long as our hearts are actually in it. Markovitz says that you shouldn’t even think of going near your inbox if you don’t have time to deal with it properly. That means that you can’t devote the two minutes before an important meeting to the task anymore. Nor can you have a quick squizz while waiting for the photocopier to be free.
Obviously there will be occasions when it’ll be necessary to dip in and pull out a high priority message, but they should be few and far between, and not the norm.
If you really want to spend less time in your inbox, Markovitz provides a list of questions that you should ask yourself. They will help you understand what information you receive, and why you receive it. The questions aren’t particularly difficult, but they have the potential to make you unpopular with some colleagues, they include:
1) What percentage of your email do you consider to be worthless?
2) From which departments or people do you get most of your worthless email?
3) What topics crop up the most in worthless emails?
4) How long does mail stay in your inbox?
5) Why does mail stay in your inbox for a long time?
Your answers will help you to understand the root causes of your flooded inbox, and allow you to come up with appropriate measures to address the problem.
It’s entirely possible that the root of your problem lies with you, and your natural disposition towards chaos. If this is the case, try a little self-organisation before you go about alienating colleagues by declaring that all their communication is worthless and that you’re placing them at the bottom of your list of priorities.
To highlight the importance of email processing, Markovitz uses the example of NASA’s 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter that burned up in the Martian atmosphere. The mishap occurred because the two teams that were worked on the project used different units of measurement. One worked in English units while the other worked in metric units.
This in itself was not an insurmountable problem. The real oversight occurred when the email informing the flight director of the problem lay buried in her inbox for 10 months. She may have seen it and simply not deemed it important at the time, and then forgot about it until it was spectacularly too late. Or it may have been lumped with all the unread emails from concerned friends and family telling her about the dangers of contraceptive injections.
Whatever the reason, we can be reasonably sure that at $327 million, it’s been the most expensive email sent to date. Kind of makes you feel like taking 20 minutes to see what’s hiding in your inbox, doesn’t it?