How to Email More Productively and Avoid ‘Communication Fatigue’

The humble email so often gets used inappropriately

We are all writers.

Every text, Instagram caption, tweet, Facebook post (who facebooks anymore), YouTube description. It’s all words. The combination of which aims to tell the receiver something. Hopefully something of value. We are always trying to convey messages, articulate thoughts, express our opinion. And a lot of that happens between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm.

Work is full of messages. Ideas. Thoughts. Aspirations. On a granular level, the working ecosystem relies on methods of communication to progress. Where would we be without being able to communicate? Most likely it would result in mislaid plans, confusion, stress and more moving backwards then progressing forwards. We are at the mercy of our communication.

One of the most frequent methods of communication? Email.

It’s then rather easy to conclude that by getting emailing right, and moreover, using it responsibly and appropriately, we can become better. We can become, wait for it, more productive. We all have 24 hours in a day. Some people have their hours working away for them. They leverage hours. They plan what to do and how to maximise their hours. And that’s why you’re here right… you're interested in being more productive.

The Principles of Productivity

The first thing to note is that is perhaps the biggest irony of all. Becoming productive at something, that then has a negative impact on your overall productivity. You can be productive on the macro, but overall unproductive in the micro.

For example:

Your overall ambition is to become a top writer in productivity (if I say productivity one more time I feel I may actually enter the matrix). You are really passionate about productivity, getting more done and how to utilise time. Cool. Bet you are a hoot at parties.

So you have this goal. However, as ever, things always get in the way. You get sidetracked with cleaning the kitchen and all of a sudden you are organising the junk draw and polishing the coffee table. You sit down at the end of the and you are wiped. But my god does the house look clean. What a productive day you’ve had. Wrong. Well, you have had a productive day but not on the things you want to be productive in. You may have the world’s cleanest house but it’s not going to help you push out more articles.

Being productive is important, making sure it’s in the right things is more important. That’s step one.

The History of the Humble Email

“When the mail was being developed, nobody thought at the beginning it was going to be the smash hit that it was. So it was a surprise to everybody, that it was a big hit.” — Frank Heart, the director of Arpanet Infrastructure team

‘QWERTYUIOP’. That was the first email ever written. For the observant amongst you, you will realise that that is the first line of your keyboard. It’s initial and rather interesting purpose was to allow scientists to share their work. It was an absurd idea that this method would be used to communicate with each other.

People already had many methods of communication. Phone calls, letter and face-to-face meetings. It actually turns out that emailing was a bit of a hit that nobody foresaw.

The first email ever sent, 1971 — from Cloudflare

Essentially the timeline looks something like this:

  • 1971 — Ray Tomlison (a computer engineer) developed the system for sending messages.
  • 1972 — Larry Roberts writes the first email system that allows people to forward and respond to messages.
  • 1976 — Queen Elizabeth II sends an email on Apranet.
  • 1989 — The first release of Lotus notes email software.
  • 1998 — Microsoft buys Hotmail for a cool $400m.

The Guardian wrote a brilliant article on this. It’s quite interesting how novel and useless the initial idea of the email was. And now? Well, we can’t imagine working life without it. So that then leads us to how to be more productive with email.

How Do We Use Email Productively?

An example of a ‘bad’ email from Jive

Email is great. Why? It allows us to send off an idea, thought, comment, question and it requires no immediate receipt of information back from the sender. There is no time needed, at least initially, going back and forth. Email allows us to go through things at our own pace. Unlike phone calls, we can digest information for hours if we want before responding. Emails are kept. Again, unlike phone calls, they are stored. Information held in a database, ready for review at any moment. We can go back to them. Reread if we need. So, all in all, they are pretty brilliant. However, they can and I fear, they are, being used poorly.

Overspilling inboxes are a sign that things have gone a little off track with the whole emailing culture. If you’re on holiday for a week and you come back to 400+ emails I think it’s a sign that everyone is a little too email happy. So this leads me to the case in point. How do we use email more productively?

Only Do it When Necessary

We have so many methods of communication and they all have their place. Their features lend themselves to different needs of the user. Quick question? Text. Need an answer right now? Phone call. Got a pressing thought that can’t wait? Voicemail. Need someone to read through something, understand it and get back to you with their thoughts? Email.

Using email for quick questions, passing thoughts or to get an urgent response is perhaps a waste of time. You’d be much better using some other form of communication.

#1 Make it Clear

Being ambiguous in emails leads to more emails flying back and forth. The last thing anyone needs. Its good practice to be succinct in the ask. Explain the context, be clear on the ask from the recipient and give them the information they need to give you what you’re asking for.

#2 Tell a Story

Much like the point above. Don’t leave any room for confusion. Starting the email getting straight to the point can disorient the reader. Be clear where this has come from, who you have spoken to and then get into the detail of what you are asking for.

#3 Don’t cc in Every Man and His Dog

It’s always pretty horrendous trying to trawl through an email thread to work out what’s gone on. Something being forwarded from one person to the next, to the next, just adds more layers of confusion. Understand who your audience is and send it to them. Everyone else will be glad to have one less email.

#4 Batch Your Emailing

This one is a goodie and it comes from Tim Ferris’s 4-hour workweek. That little dinging in the right-hand corner of the screen, when you are trying to work on something that requires an ounce of concentration, is really no good. It’s no good because it’s working against the basic human instinct in all of us. Curiosity. You see that little flash of an email in the top corner of your screen and you tell yourself you’ll look at it later but in actual fact, your brain is doing overtime.

‘I wonder what Simon wants’ ‘Didn’t I speak to him yesterday’ ‘Did I just read the word urgent?’

You can’t help but wonder what the mail is about. So you inevitably dip into it. Harmless right? You’ll just look at this one and then back to what you were doing. And then it’s like that time you just ‘quickly’ log into Facebook and five hours later you find yourself laughing at cat videos (or maybe dog videos, I’m not a cat person). We all fall into the trap of emails. And it distracts us from what we need to do. Remember the cleaning the house analogy. This applies here.

Schedule your time to look at your emails twice in your day and stop any notifications coming through otherwise. And if you are cringing at the thought of that, logic presides on this one. If someone wanted to get hold of you immediately they’d ring. If not, they can wait a couple of hours for a reply.

Emailing is great. It gives us the opportunity to get more done. But it also can lead to an overflowing inbox, a mishmash of information and a confused human at the end of it all.

By being clear, giving context, understanding if it’s appropriate to email and batching we can save time emailing and spend more time doing the stuff that will move the dial.

Written by

BSc Biomedical Science, studying MSc Behavioural Science. Essays exploring a happy self. www.millennialcareerhealth.com

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