When we waste time with email because of our own actions, complaining bitterly about email doesn't make much sense. To get control of email, we have to change how we work with it. Here's Part II of a little catalog of ways to waste time with email. See "Email Antics: I," Point Lookout for December 17, 2003, and "Email Antics: III," Point Lookout for January 14, 2004, for more.
- Abuse the subject line
- Opening a new topic by replying to a message to get their address, you forget to alter (or don't bother to alter) the subject line.
- This makes searching for the topic confusing later on. Remember that the subject line is the most important part of the message.
- Leave the subject line blank
- Leaving the subject line blank forces recipients to read your message with little or no idea of what it's about. They can't order your message by priority; they have no context in mind when they start reading. If they get only a few messages per day, this is no problem, but if they get hundreds, as many of us now do, many will probably assign a low priority to your message. Maybe that's OK, maybe not.
- Check for new email too frequently
- Either bored or avoiding something difficult or distasteful, you decide to check email. If you're bored, read a good book instead, or get some exercise. If you're avoiding something, get it done — or ask for help. See "Help for Asking for Help," Point Lookout for December 10, 2003.
- Reply to non-urgent email immediately, just because it's easy
- Wasting time is OK,
but complaining bitterly
about what we ourselves
are doing isn't
- See "Checking for new email too frequently." There's another possibility for this one: you need to feel like you're finishing something. In that case, try finishing a very tiny piece of something more important. See "Figuring Out What to Do First," Point Lookout for June 4, 2003.
- Check for new email automatically, instead of when you're interruptible
- Most email readers offer automatic inbox checking as an option. Turn it off. Right away. Take charge of your own interruptions. See "Time Management in a Hurry," Point Lookout for November 12, 2003.
- Reply without context
- Someone sends you a few paragraphs, including some questions, and you reply with "Not that I know of," but you don't include any part of the original message. This makes it difficult for the recipient to figure out what question your answer answers. Include enough context to make that clear.
- Reply with too much context
- When you reply, include a complete copy of the message you received. The next person after you does the same, and so on, until the message is so big that if bytes were rocks, you'd have a down payment on the Great Pyramid. Remove from your replies any portion of the sender's message that isn't relevant to your reply.
If you do some of these, and you'd like to stop, tack this list on your wall. Highlight the ones you want to avoid, and review it once in a while to see how you're doing. Be patient, expect lapses, and celebrate your victories. First in this series | Next in this series Top Next Issue
Are you so buried in email that you don't even have time to delete your spam? Do you miss important messages? So many of the problems we have with email are actually within our power to solve, if we just realize the consequences of our own actions. Read 101 Tips for Writing and Managing Email to learn how to make peace with your inbox. Order Now!
And if you have organizational responsibility, you can help transform the culture to make more effective use of email. You can reduce volume while you make content more valuable. You can discourage email flame wars and that blizzard of useless if well-intended messages from colleagues and subordinates. Read Where There's Smoke There's Email to learn how to make email more productive at the organizational scale — and less dangerous. Order Now!
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
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