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Email, my Frenemy

We’ve all had it, the message from our email server fussing to let us know our account is 99.9% full. First response? Sort emails by size, save and delete a few of the largest offenders, then continue on with the day. Sound familiar? A few days ago, I took a look at the actual number of messages I had. Like a BMI reality check. It was a wake up call: Inbox = 12,543 messages, Outbox = 13,203 messages. And people wonder why I don’t take vacation!

Email and I have a love/hate relationship. I still remember the magic of email in the early days – it quietly and quickly took over for the loud and cranky fax machine. It was a fast way to communicate – avoiding the time and requisite niceties of a phone call to relay a short message. It revolutionized office space by allowing us to quickly save and store documents electronically. Email allows me to track decisions, conversations and creates accountability, a memory jog and fast access to lots of files and documents wherever I’m working. This format has taught me to be careful about what I type and get a second opinion on tricky messages before I click send. I can check email on my phone where ever I am to stay productive. Email always delivers its message – there is no busy signal.

And therein lies the challenge. We can send emails night and day – 7 days a week. There is a cultural expectation that emails will be returned quickly…email has speed us all up. The dark side of working everywhere is that, well, we can work everywhere! The pace of work was already fast – it didn’t need to get faster. It seems that every year the grump I get for taking a day to return an email grows. Due to its efficiency (and the ability to use a read receipt function) it is near impossible to come up with an excuse when trying to avoid something or someone. Let’s be real – we ALL know that we have to check our junk box (I once had a funding award letter in there). Sometimes I feel like my email is nagging me, rolling that boulder up hill – I can’t keep up and it creates stress. Can I get an “amen” out there?

Do not despair! There are suggested strategies for taming the crazy inbox. Here are a few I’ve found that I resolve to practice. If you’ve got another please comment and share!

  • Use the out of office function – set and hold expectations about how fast you will respond to messages when you are busy or out of the office.
  • Model the behavior you like – don’t send emails on weekends or evenings – you can work and write them but save them and send during normal work hours.
  • Be patient with other people’s response times.
  • Learn the tricks of your email platform and use them – categorize emails, flag the ones you can’t forget, keep only the final message in an email thread, delete the rest in a weekly purge (I know – practice what you preach lady)
  • Set aside specific times during the day to respond to email being sure to turn it off and think once in a while.
  • Unsubscribe from listservs or email lists that fill your inbox with info you don’t need.
  • Pick up the phone – when the back and forth on a topic exceeds three emails it is time to talk.

This is not mission impossible. We can make peace with our inbox. I plan to start today!

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