Managing E‑mail. The Business Writing Center R. Craig Hogan, Ph.D. Director. 2003 The Business Writing Center writingtrainers.com firstname.lastname@example.org. The e‑mail problem.
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The Business Writing Center
R. Craig Hogan, Ph.D.
2003 The Business Writing Center email@example.com
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.
Three reasons the volume of e-mail has exploded have to do with the changing climate in business:
The volume of e-mail has also increased because of poor e-mail management:
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!
To illustrate, we’ll follow Derek, a businessman, through three 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.
Derek has to decide when to respond based on
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.
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.
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.
These are the set points in Derek’s mind:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, when Derek leaves the office, here’s where he is on his e‑mails:
This way of handling e‑mails causes other, subtler problems:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Business Writing Center
R. Craig Hogan, Ph.D., Director
2003 The Business Writing Center firstname.lastname@example.org