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Managing E‑mail. The Business Writing Center R. Craig Hogan, Ph.D. Director.  2003 The Business Writing Center   The e‑mail problem.

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managing e mail

Managing E‑mail

The Business Writing Center

R. Craig Hogan, Ph.D.


 2003 The Business Writing Center 

the e mail problem
The e‑mail problem

E‑mail has become a persistent problem for business people. Swarms fly out of cyberspace to invade computers daily. No sooner are those disposed of than a new horde invades. They multiply like locusts.

reasons for increase in the volume of e mail
Reasons for increase in the volume of e‑mail

Three reasons the volume of e-mail has exploded have to do with the changing climate in business:

  • E‑mail has become the primary medium for business communication, so interactions formerly done by phone or in meetings are now taking place in e-mail.
  • Business people are taking on more duties in today’s complex workplace, so they must communicate more messages to accomplish their daily tasks.
  • The duties often involve new, complex technology that requires more communication to carry out tasks; business is simply more complicated today. That requires even more e‑mails.
another factor increases the volume of e mail poor e mail management
Another factor increases the volume of e-mail: poor e-mail management

The volume of e-mail has also increased because of poor e-mail management:

  • Some unnecessary communication is occurring in e‑mails because management doesn’t establish acceptable uses of e-mail, and business people don’t tell each other the limits on types of e-mail they want.
  • Poorly written e-mails result in the receiver’s sending one or more e-mails asking for clarification and the sender’s responses in additional e-mails to clarify.
  • Incomplete responses result in the receiver’s sending more e-mails asking for the omitted information; the sender must then send more e-mails providing it.
  • Delayed responses precipitate e-mail exchanges over why the person hasn’t responded.
the business person s role
The business person’s role

Organizations today generate more e-mail because e-mail has become the primary mode of interaction, businesses are more complex so more daily communication is necessary, and successful use of new technologies requires more communication. We can’t change those factors.

However, the way we manage our own e-mail is entirely within our control.

We can act to reduce the burden!

the answer manage e mail better
The answer: Manage e-mail better

To illustrate, we’ll follow Derek, a businessman, through three e‑mail days.

derek s e mail days
Derek’s e‑mail days

Monday – Derek receives 40 e‑mails. Among them are these five:

1 from Aaron

2 from Jean

1 from the consultant

1 from the CFO

We’ll follow Derek’s e‑mail habits using five e‑mails he receives on the first day.

deciding when to respond
Deciding when to respond

Derek has to decide when to respond based on

  • His volume of work
  • The message in the e‑mail
  • The person who sent the e‑mail
  • The age of the e‑mail
  • The volume of messages still in his in-box
assessing the e mails on monday
Assessing the e-mails on Monday

Looking at his full in-box, Derek thinks to himself,

“I have a pile of work to do, so I’ll just respond to the e‑mails that are most important.”

Among the 40 e-mails in his in-box are the fivee-mails he received today that we’re following. He assesses which he must respond to immediately and which he can put off so he can get to other work he has to do. He thinks to himself,

1 from Aaron – No, Aaron can wait. He’ll understand.

2 from Jean – Jean will figure that out. I’ll wait.

1 from the consultant – He needs my input, but not today.

1 from the CFO – I’ll do this one right now.

monday s set points
Monday’s set points

The evaluations reveal Derek’s set points:

CFO – Respond immediately to her.

All the rest – Delay them.

The set points are unspoken feelings or senses about how quickly he must respond to each person. “I have to respond to the CFO immediately. I can delay Aaron.” His set point for the CFO is “immediately.” He hasn’t yet reached his set point for the other three people; their responses can be delayed.

Derek reviews the other 35 e‑mails and decides to respond right away to 9 others as well. That leaves 30 e‑mails he is not responding to on Monday.

assessing set points on tuesday
Assessing set points on Tuesday

Derek receives 40 e‑mails on Tuesday. He now has 70 e‑mails in his in-box. He evaluates them all and decides he must respond immediately to 12 new ones. He then confronts the old ones.

1 from Aaron – It’s only been a day. Aaron will get along without my input. I’ll wait.

2 from Jean – Jean should have figured it out on her own. I’ll wait.

1 from the consultant – It’s been 24 hours. I had better respond to him.

tuesday s set points
Tuesday’s set points

These are the set points in Derek’s mind:

  • Aaron will get along without my input. I’ll wait.He hasn’t reached his set point for Aaron or Aaron’s message.
  • Jean should have figured it out on her own. I’ll wait.He hasn’t reached his set point for Jean or Jean’s message.
  • For the consultant, it’s been 24 hours. I had better respond to him.He has reached his set point for the consultant. It is 24 hours.
tuesday s set points13
Tuesday’s set points

Derek reviews the other e‑mails he has received on Tuesday and decides that 15 of Monday’s messages must receive replies on Tuesday, giving them a set point of 24 hours. That means he has the feeling they have aged to the point at which the senders must receive replies or there’ll be problems.

That leaves 42 e‑mails from Monday and Tuesday in his in-box at the end of the day on Tuesday.

assessing set points on wednesday
Assessing set points on Wednesday

Derek receives 46 e‑mails on Wednesday. Six new e‑mails are from people he didn’t respond to on Monday and Tuesday. He now has 88 e‑mails in his in-box and evaluates them all. He decides he must respond to 15 new ones, then confronts the old ones.

1 from Aaron – Aaron’s going to go ballistic if I don’t respond. I’d better e‑mail him.

2 from Jean – Jean hasn’t sent a reminder. She must have figured it out. I’ll wait.

wednesday s set points
Wednesday’s set points

That shows Derek’s set points for Aaron and Jean and their messages:

Aaron’s going to go ballistic if I don’t respond. I’d better e‑mail him.Derek has reached his set point for Aaron. It was 48 hours. He has a sense that the e‑mail can’t be delayed any longer.

Jean hasn’t sent a reminder. She must have figured it out. I’ll wait.Derek has not yet reached his set point for Jean. He has the sense that it won’t matter if he delays Jean another day.

wednesday s set points16
Wednesday’s set points

As he reviews the other e‑mails from Monday and Tuesday, Derek decides that three of Monday’s messages must receive replies on Wednesday, giving them a set point of 48 hours. Also, 15 of Tuesday’s messages must be replied to on Wednesday, giving them a set point of 24 hours.

He deletes the six reminders e‑mails without response. At the end of the day on Wednesday, he has 40 e‑mails from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in his in-box.

here s where derek is
Here’s where Derek is

Wednesday, when Derek leaves the office, here’s where he is on his e‑mails:

  • He has 40 e‑mails to do and can expect 40 more on Thursday.
  • The consultant and 42 other people have had to delay action for a day because he didn’t respond.
  • Jean and three other people are feeling that Derek is either irresponsible or doesn’t care about their needs or both.
  • The others from Tuesday to whom Derek hasn’t replied are going to feel equally neglected on Thursday because he didn’t respond on Wednesday. They’re going to send e-mails, adding to Derek’s in-box.
there are other problems as well
There are other problems as well

This way of handling e‑mails causes other, subtler problems:

  • Derek is feeling pressure because he has e‑mails that are 48 hours old. Tomorrow, some will be 72 hours old.
  • Derek has evaluated 57 e‑mails twice and five e‑mails three times. That has added to his time working on e‑mails and frustration.
  • His in-box looks fuller every day, giving him a panicky feeling.
  • In his haste to reduce the number of e-mails in his in-box, he writes short, poorly written, unclear e-mails. That results in a ping-pong exchange of e-mails until the receiver understands the content. He is adding to his own volume of e-mail.
other problems continued
Other problems (continued)
  • Derek has increased the number of e‑mails coming into his in-box because he hasn’t responded to some people and receives e-mails asking why he hasn’t responded. The prodding has elevated his frustration.
  • He has implied to some people that they and their needs are not important to him, creating stress in his relationships.
  • He has contributed to the culture that will put him in the place frequently of being the person receiving late or no responses to e‑mails because that’s just the way everybody does it.
allowing crises to rule
Allowing crises to rule

Derek is allowing crises to govern his e‑mail communication. He ages each e‑mail until it comes near to creating a crisis if it sits any longer; then he responds.

The fallacy of that strategy is that he will never be able to predict accurately which is near to creating a crisis and which is already over the edge. He couldn’t understand a reader’s real needs or expectations. In reality, nearly all the senders need his responses right now. He is deciding for them how they must pace their work.

creating irritability
Creating irritability

His daily position on the edge of crisis also makes him and those e‑mailing him irritable. He receives regular e‑mails prodding him for responses and he sends e‑mails with the same pleas to those not responding to him.

The result is a general frustration with the lack of response to e‑mails. However, those suffering the effects, including Derek, are the same people creating the condition.

crisis management of e mails adds to the flood of e mails
Crisis management of e-mails adds to the flood of e-mails

This crisis management results in more e-mails as people engage in frustrating exchanges about why the responses aren’t forthcoming. The sender’s needs may change in the interim so additional e-mails are necessary when the response is no longer sufficient. And the e-mails written in haste to clean out the in-box are more likely to be poorly written, cryptic, and incomplete, resulting in more e-mail exchanges for clarification and additional information.

looking down on the problem
Looking down on the problem

If we look down on Derek’s problem from outside, we can see that each day, Derek will respond to around 40 e‑mails. On some days, it may be 30 and on some 50, but Derek’s average is around 40. We know that the average number of e‑mails he responds to remains stable because the number of e-mails in his in-box never diminishes to 0 or increases to 100. His 40 per day maintains his in-box.

On Wednesday, some of those e‑mails he responds to are from Monday and Tuesday, but the average remains at 40 per day. “I’m never going to be able to empty my in-box,” he laments.

the solution
The solution

However, the solution to Derek’s dilemma is readily available. Derek should simply decide that his set point for e‑mails is two hours and do Monday’s 40 on Monday, Tuesday’s 40 on Tuesday, and Wednesday’s 40 on Wednesday. The average number of e‑mails doesn’t change; the timing for doing them does.

That eliminates the frustration and gives his co-workers what they need when they need it. They, in turn, will be giving him what he needs when he needs it. No one will be setting someone else’s work pace based on a very elusive, personal assessment of how long the other person can wait for the response to be able to get on with his or her work.

a change in set points
A change in set points

Responding quickly to e‑mails requires a personal, inner change in set points, not an external change in systems. As a result, anyone can decide to change the behavior and begin doing so immediately. If everyone in the company changed the set point for company e‑mails, everyone could expect responses they need within hours, not days.

If Derek decides to start responding immediately to e‑mails on Thursday, he will have to clean up Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday’s e‑mails along with Thursday’s, so he will have a heavy e‑mail day on that first day using the new set point. However, on Friday and every day thereafter, he will have only that day’s e‑mails to respond to.

extraordinary days will be ordinary
Extraordinary days will be ordinary

Then, the extraordinary days when Derek has a big project to work on or receives 80 e‑mails will not be a burden. He may have to delay responses for a day or two, but then he will catch up and maintain the two-hour set point.

In those cases, he will e‑mail people within two hours as usual saying he’s not able to respond adequately, so it may take him a day or two to get back to the sender.

responding quickly enhances the team feelings of good will
Responding quickly enhances the team feelings of good will

Everyone will know Derek always responds promptly, so when he writes, “I am really swamped now but will respond as soon as I can,” the receiver will believe it and know he or she is not being put at the bottom of the pile; Derek will respond as quickly as possible and isn’t making excuses.

Receiving prompt responses to e‑mails tells the receiver that Derek regards that person highly. Not responding or responding after days tells the person Derek doesn’t value him or her. In other words, responding promptly builds good will.

evaluating the contents of e mails
Evaluating the contents of e‑mails

Responding promptly also allows everyone to evaluate the contents of the e‑mails and respond with what is on his or her mind about them. E‑mails containing requests the business person believes are frivolous are normally just filed in the “later” box, sometimes never to be retrieved. The sender doesn’t know why a response isn’t forthcoming.

The tactic of simply not responding to e‑mails containing unnecessary requests or information is counterproductive. It creates more e‑mails when the frustrated sender writes reminder e‑mails. The sender also does not learn to change the contents of e‑mails in the future to reduce the overall volume of e‑mail so the pattern continues.

putting limits on e mail contents
Putting limits on e‑mail contents

If the business person finished each day with an empty in-box, he or she would have to tell the person regularly sending e‑mails containing unnecessary information or requests what the problems are with the e‑mails. That would put the business person’s objections on the table so the sender and receiver could deal with them. In the end, it would result in fewer e‑mails and less frustration.

As the corporate culture matured through regular discussions of the contents of e‑mails, the issues would come up less and less frequently. Everyone would share the same perspective and the culture would deal with the problem by evolving. Everyone would follow the same guidelines.

scheduling time to respond
Scheduling time to respond

Each business person should also set times to respond to e-mail throughout the day. Most people should start the day with other duties, then respond to the day’s e‑mails at perhaps 10 a.m. Since few e‑mails were left over from late yesterday afternoon, that means the 10 a.m. response would take care of the early morning’s e‑mails.

The next response might be at 1 p.m. after lunch for an hour. That would take care of e‑mails received between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. The last might be at 4 p.m., cleaning out all e‑mails from the day. Anything coming in after 4 p.m. may result in a polite reply explaining that the receiver will respond more fully in the morning.

adjusting the time to respond
Adjusting the time to respond

If the three times to respond are not enough time, the business person needs to examine the e‑mails to see what is coming in that is taking so much time and address the problem directly. The problem could be unnecessary e‑mail messages or that the person is just taking on more than one person can handle in his or her work in general.

When e‑mails are put off, those important personal and work issues are not addressed.

economizing on time
Economizing on time

The business person should set a goal of reading each e‑mail only once. Dealing with it at the first reading means it does not have to be read again. He or she should respond as requested in the e‑mail, delegate it to someone else, or otherwise dispose of it.

In unusual circumstances, the reader may respond to the writer explaining that he or she will reply in more detail at a specific time (this afternoon, tomorrow). However, business people should respond immediately and limit the action of deferring e‑mails to unusual times or circumstances.

final words
Final words

Business people have come to feel that they do not have to respond to e‑mails quickly. Each day, they stop responding when they reach the e‑mails that can be put into the “later” stack because everyone has other pressing work to do. They then allow the put-off e‑mails to age until they reach the set point they and the corporate culture have established: 24 hours, 72 hours, a week, or even longer.

In other words, they respond when the e‑mail is at a near-crisis stage.

keeping e mail viable
Keeping e‑mail viable

E‑mail will remain a viable method of communicating for business only if we realize that an e‑mail should be treated more like a phone call than a letter. We should respond immediately or within hours to every e‑mail. The culture we have now in which e‑mails can be aged for days and some can be put into an “ignore” stack without communicating the problem to the sender is counterproductive, frustrating, and avoidable.

We just need to decide to change our behavior.

the end

The end

The Business Writing Center

R. Craig Hogan, Ph.D., Director

 2003 The Business Writing Center 