Don’t blame the e-messenger

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2012 is to “take control” of my email. As I receive about 150 a day, emails had been an unmitigated point of stress throughout the previous year. The hours wasted endlessly sorting through them, devising systems to organise them, always feeling like I was behind and inevitably missing the important ones anyway. But this year, no more, they are being put firmly back in their in-box. Email stress will affect me no longer!

The plan? My out-of-office notification is now permanently switched on, the message reads as follows: “Thank you for your email, but please note: I read emails only between the hours of 9-10am and 5-6.30pm each day.” It then gives my assistant’s phone number in case a speedier response is required. The sweet liberation this has afforded me is not so much the corralling of time dedicated to emails to the specified hours, but rather the sheer unbridled joy (there is no better word) of not feeling compelled to open Outlook or Explorer all day! With this single shift, my commute (train and bus both ways) feels shorter, fully occupied as I am pinging back responses, forwarding or deleting the little devils, and the hours I have to do my job seem longer, devoid as they now are of the distraction of staring at a screen transfixed by nonsense (apparently 73% of all emails received are spam, and it takes over a minute to regain concentration after reading an email).

Of course not all emails can be dispatched with a swift one liner, signed “Sent from my Blackberry, hence brevity. Think short, but acknowledged!” Those requiring further attention are added to the ink on paper to-do list, and the crucial point is, I know they exist, and I can reply at my convenience, rather than exhibiting a near Pavlovian response of clicking to attention every time I hear the ping.

My team has also been advised of this new e-policy, and told in no uncertain terms that if I can see you, I don’t want to be emailed by you, talk to me instead. We’re one month in and I think it’s going pretty well, I certainly feel more efficient and everything seems to be getting done.

But over and above time management, my e-strategy got me thinking about the myriad of ways in which we can communicate today. It’s been widely reported that email is dead. But is it? And should it be? Perhaps, it simply needs to be put in its place. After all, if it’s taking over your life, who’s fault is that? Don’t blame the messenger system. Adapt.

And why is the alleged fact that Generation Y doesn’t like email, even relevant? They don’t have jobs! Would you seriously tweet your boss? Or arrange a client meeting via Facebook? I suppose it depends who your clients are, but what’s happened to our sense of appropriateness, or decorum? Surely the point of our current wealth of communication platforms is precisely that they are differing forms of engagement on a sliding scale of formality. I’d list them roughly as follows: type-written letter; hand-written letter; phone call to non-personal landline; group email; personal email; text message; phone call to mobile; instant message; phone call to home landline; tweet; anything via Facebook or other social media site. Post-it notes should probably factor in there somewhere and do Telegrams still exist?

There’s also the speed, reach and archive quotient. A tweet can go global, or be lost, in an instant whereas a letter, albeit dependent on an unreliable third-party transportation system, rarely goes far beyond its intended recipient, and can be kept indefinitely. So when new lovebirds tweet intimacies, I despair for their sanity; when teenagers post their drunken escapades on Facebook, I worry for their futures; and when I’m texted “How are you?” I am profoundly irritated. If you actually care, call.

And when I hear whispers of the next-big-communication-tool that’s truly global, mobile and collaborative, I can’t help but wonder, what’s wrong with “talking”?

10 ways to cope with email…

1. Someone else’s “urgency” doesn’t have to be yours.

2. You don’t have to reply to anything immediately.

3. Besides, thought before reply ensures you say what you mean and mean what you say.

4. Don’t send “Are you there?” emails, ever. Phone.

5. Don’t angry-mail people you can see to avoid confrontation. Talk.

6. Be ruthless with the delete button. Anything that’s truly important will come back to you if you get over-zealous.

7. Robustly pillory anyone that sends you a chain-mail.

8. Keep work and personal email addresses/feeds entirely separate, and on different devices. It’s the only effective way to be able to completely switch off.

9. Don’t delete newsletters you didn’t subscribe to in the first place. Unsubscribe.

10. Remember that no-one really needs to be connected 24/7. Sometimes there’s stealth in being unavailable.