Reflections on e-mails

I remember the days when as a young academic I looked forward to receiving perhaps 10 letters a day; now, I receive well over 100 e-mails a day, and there is an expectation that I should respond to them all as soon as possible. How am I expected to be creative and innovative?  E-mails have been one of the most damaging things to productive and innovative work.  I hugely admire colleagues who have resisted the onset of e-mails, and simply invite those who want to contact them to write to them in ‘hard copy’. A colleague in a global organisation recently told me that he had a backlog of more than 6000 unanswered e-mails.  This is completely unacceptable.  We need to take more control over our lives – and our e-mails!

Some of the greatest abuses of e-mail (over and above Spam) include the following:

  • Organisations that send all of the paperwork for meetings as attachments, and then expect attendees to print them off before they attend the meeting.  This is completely unacceptable.  If hard-copy is required, then it is much more efficient and cheaper for the central organisation to print multiple copies and then disseminate these to attendees.  It is of course far easier for organisations simply to send out e-mails, but this passes on the work load of printing out to the attendees!
  • The above is even worse when the convener of a meeting sends the papers out electronically a couple of hours before the meeting starts and still expects recipients to read them beforehand!
  • People who set their preferences to reply to all, and thereby send vast numbers of e-mails to people who really do not want to receive them!
  • People who expect e-mails to be answered almost immediately!  Why should this have become so widely accepted?
  • Excessive use of copy e-mails.  Anyone who has worked in certain kinds of organisation (such as the Civil Service) will be only too familiar with this syndrome! People who are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their actions always copy their bosses in to an e-mail!  Likewise certain control-freak bosses always want to micro-manage their staff and demand to be copied in!
  • People who send an e-mail to someone in the same room asking them a question, rather than getting up and actually talking with them!  It’s OK if the e-mail is to send an attached document, but otherwise it is much more efficient simply to go and discuss the matter with them.

So, here are some tips on what I think is good e-mail usage that might help reduce such abuses and enable us to retain some sense of our humanity:

  • When on leave, set a rule that files all incoming e-mails in a separate folder, and have an out of office message that tells everyone that their e-mail has been archived and if they want you to read it they should send it again when you return.  Rest assured that this will infuriate people, but just think about it.  If you have only 100 e-mails a day, and go on leave for 10 days that will mean that you will have 1000 e-mails awaiting you on return.  Even if you only spend a minute on each e-mail it would take just under 17 hours to respond to these on return.  You have better things to do.
  • Set a rule that sends all of your copy correspondence to a separate folder, and have an automated response that says something to the effect that you try to read copy correspondence once a week, and if the sender really wants you to read it more urgently than this they should send it to you as a direct respondent.  Again, this can infuriate abusers of copy correspondence, but it certainly cuts down on the number of unwanted e-mails you will receive!
  • A friend told me of a colleague who only responds to 38 e-mails a day – and lets everyone know this.  If you don’t get into the top 38, then tough luck!  I have not yet quite got round to doing this.
  • A variant on this is simply to set an amount of time each day to respond to e-mails – perhaps an hour –  and then just delete all those that have not been answered.
  • Colour code your e-mails into certain categories, and then sort them automatically according to priority.  Just so you know, my list in descending order of priority is as follows: family (red), friends (blue), my postgraduate students (green), Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (orange), ICT4D  colleagues (pale blue), Institute of Masters of Wine (Burgundy), and then others (black).  I don’t always get through all of my high priority e-mails, but it does mean that people know where they stand.
  • Set a rule that automatically deletes all incoming out of office messages before you ever even see them!
  • Always switch off your e-mail software if you are trying to do anything productive – and keep it off for as long as possible.  Never leave it running in the background.
  • Try to read your e-mails at set times of day – such as first thing in the morning – and then simply do as much as you can before switching your e-mail software off and  then start again the next morning.
  • If people are pushy and ask why you have not responded immediately to their e-mails, simply put them lower down in your list of priorities! They will soon learn.
  • Have a standard attempted response rate to important e-mails of 48 hours – and let people know this.  No-one should expect an e-mail to be read or responded to immediately.
  • Never respond to work related e-mails at the weekend.
  • I’m thinking of creating an automated response to all of my e-mails letting people know what my e-mail strategy is and apologising if they don’t receive an answer!

Enough for now….

Oh yes, and I am developing an automated e-mail answering system that learns how I usually respond to certain kinds of e-mail and then does this automatically for me.  It is great fun, but does mean that people don’t always get the messages that they expect to receive….



Filed under ICT4D

5 responses to “Reflections on e-mails

  1. Thao

    This is great stuff. Thank you Tim for taking the time to share this. I often wonder how you manage to get through the moutain of emails you receive a day!

  2. ugomatic

    Exactly, Thao: by (not) following those rules 😉

  3. These are great tips indeed Tim, and all so true!!
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Rachel

    Couldn’t agree more – encouraging to find one’s own ‘betes noir ‘ and rules echoed – so glad you replied!

  5. Pingback: Power hierarchies and digital oppression: towards a revolutionary practice of human freedom | Tim Unwin's Blog

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