How are we doing with email? How did we do without it?

Or would we be better off without it.

A number of things have put e-mail at the top of the discussion list in recent weeks, from blogs to national TV. The BBC’s Money programme covered the topic last friday (March the 7th – if you can use iPlayer link here: The Money Programme), with the accompanying news article “E-mail is ruining my life.”

Information Overload via E-Mail

Information overload is a growing problem, and e-mail is right in the middle of it. People are overloaded by their personal email, from SPAM to Facebook notifications and seemingly endless forwarded emails. Even musicians suffer from information overload these days.

It is something when it makes it on to national TV – it doesn’t seem long ago that I had to explain what email was. Now I’m helping people deal with e-mail over use. It is clearly a problem of epidemic proportions. Lots of people have been researching the issue, like Nada Kakabadse at Northampton Business School (on the lift site here). She was recently quoted in a New Scientist article on technology addiction:

“Companies offer technologies like PDAs and Blackberies and just expect people to learn how to use them. They don’t consider the possible negative sides. New technology gives a feeling of having more control, but it may be only a feeling.

We don’t want to be in a situation in a few years similar to that with fast food or tobacco today. We need to pay attention to how people react to potentially habit-forming technologies and respond with appropriate education and policies.”

There is the backlash, lead by people like Tim Ferris, of the 4 hour work week fame, and others, who advocate minimising e-mail use. From e-mail free days to keeping your email client shut, checking email just once or twice a day, people are trying to tame the beast.

The technology elite are moving away from e-mail to new tools like twitter and pownce to get away from the torrent that floods the inbox. Some even proclaim that email is dead (or maybe not).

The Problem with E-Mail

The reality is that there are a number of problems with how e-mail is used today. Many people use it like an instant messaging tool – sending and expecting immediate responses. This has become more common because of tools like Blackberries, which provide this experience, most of the time at least.

The nature of our psychology, combined with a Blackberry, starts to distort our world view. I had mobile e-mail for a number of years, but I don’t currently. That is very much on purpose. My out, in, then out again perspective has made me realise the pros and cons of these tools:

  • It is hard to have a meaningful conversation or meeting if someone is fiddling and distracted. We aren’t wired to have two conversations at once.
  • Just because email is instant for you, doesn’t make it instant for others. Instant e-mail makes us unwittingly selfish. Don’t cancel a meeting when people may already travelling there and have no access to email. If you do, at least call. Don’t expect an answer at 2am.
  • Email should never be used to avoid an awkward conversation or to hold an argument. There just isn’t enough salient indicators in email to convey emotion. We have no better communication medium today than having a face to face conversation.

One of the biggest challenge with e-mail is that it has no obvious priority level. Yes, emails can be marked high or low priority, but that is rarely used well. The other issue is more around time sensitivity. One email might be something for review or information that can be tackled any time in the next few weeks. The next email might be for a call starting in 2 minutes, or to do with an urgent customer problem. Thus we are drawn in, and our time disappears to the inbox.

E-Mail Isn’t Working

To be frank, E-mail isn’t work, it is communication. It is a means, not an end. Imagine if you spent the whole day chatting on the phone. Assuming you aren’t a call centre operative, you’d probably be viewed as well below the bar from a productivity perspective. We must reconstruct our work lives so that they are not so dependant on e-mail. We can’t do this on our own, it must be done in conjunction with the community that we interactive with. Don’t worry, you’ll be joining a growing bandwagon of reformers.

Declaring e-mail bancruptcy is not the answer, but refinancing is. I’ve already written about 7 common e-mail mistakes (there are more), but let’s come at it positively. Try this:

  • Turn off automatic email checking in your email client (tell me which client you are using, and I’ll tell you how to do it).
    • This stops email interrupting you (even those little pop up messages play havoc with your attention and reduce productivity).
    • You will become concious of how often you check for email
  • Try using Instant Messaging or the phone instead of email.
    • Get a corporate system or try MSN or Skype.
    • But avoid getting drawn into long conversations – more on Instant Messaging.

Send Less e-mail, and you’ll get less. Now, back to some real work…