Destination “Inbox Zero”: Is this possible and is it really what we should be striving for?

Communicating effectively is a major workplace challenge, and technology has made it possible to communicate quickly with anyone anywhere any time.  But “communicating quickly 24/7” is not the same as “communicating effectively”—and so every once in a while, I tell my clients that email is insidious and possibly downright evil.  I don’t really think so—but it gets their attention.

The Volume Problem

The immense volume of email that many of us receive each day can make email seem like an unbeatable adversary in a battle between responding to messages and getting the work done that we had planned on.   Our days can easily feel far more reactive than productive.   One friend’s day is so consumed by email that her social media posts are regular updates on progress in cleaning out her Inbox.  Only very rarely does she get to post “Inbox Zero!”  But a goal of “Inbox Zero” is more likely to contribute to the “feeling of doing” battle with email (and losing more often than winning) and is not necessarily the most productive use of our time. 

It is always a bit impressive, therefore, when people come up with a system for dealing with email overload that actually works for them. For instance, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has developed his own system for handling email and staying productive rather than letting email become a constant, nagging drag on his day.  Hsieh’s system won’t work for everyone, but it is a good example of taking a systematic approach to email—and not making “Inbox Zero” your goal. 

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Not all problems with email, however, are volume-related. Because email is so pervasive and so immediate, it seems we should be using it for everything.  But effective communication is more than just exchanging information. Effective communication requires understanding the emotion and intentions behind the information.   As well as being able to clearly convey a message, you need to be able to listen –and listen in a way that you get the full meaning of what’s being said and makes the other person feel heard and understood.   Therefore, there are things that we simply shouldn’t do by email.

Some Email Rules of Thumb

1. Keep to short and simple emails.

Email is great for sharing simple, specific information. If you have a quick question or are providing a short update on a project, email is the way to go. Email is also perfect for sending out a brief request, simple instructions or a clear to do list. It is also a great way to get information to multiple people that they need to read, process and refer back to (for example, agenda topics for an upcoming meeting). When the message is simple, straightforward information that doesn’t require much (if any) discussion, explanation or deliberation, then email is the way to go.

2. Don’t use email for complicated instructions or solving complex problems.

When your message needs to be long and detailed, email can make a mess of your communication.  If you find yourself taking a long time to write and edit an email, then you shouldn’t be using email.   Additionally, people are less likely to read a message that is more than a brief paragraph or two. Just think how often you’ve received a long or overly detailed email and said, “I’ll read that one later,” and later never comes.

If you have to deliver complicated instructions that are likely to generate questions or require further explanation, don’t use email.  And don’t use email for solving complex problems or for problem-solving that involves multiple people. You are more likely to produce a jumble of increasingly confusing email threads than workable solutions.    Pick up the phone or schedule some face-to-face time (in person or via video conference) rather than defaulting to email.  You’ll save time, be more productive and experience less frustration. 

3. When time is critical, pick up the phone.

When time is critical, pick up the phone to get the information or the action you need when you need it. Even though electronic media moves a message from Point A to Point B in an instant, it doesn’t guarantee that a message gets from Person A to Person B in an instant. We have all experienced the frustration of sending an email asking for information that we need now—and waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Be realistic:  even in today’s always-connected world, I may not get your message in time to be helpful to you.

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Additionally, writing styles don’t always convey the same sense of urgency.  I may not pick up that your need is any more critical than that of the other 30 emails I received in the last 10 minutes. The best way to deal with urgency is by phone or in-person – while, of course, sticking to “social distancing” rules in these days of concern over the coronavirus.  Video conferencing is the new “face-to-face”!

4. Strong emotions or sensitive information?  Stay away from the SEND button!

Don’t use email when you need to communicate bad news, complaints, criticism or negative feedback—or anything that is sensitive or controversial. Misunderstandings and hurt feelings result more easily without the benefit of paralanguage—facial expressions, intonation and body language—and strong emotions are more likely to escalate.

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Don’t use email when information is extremely sensitive, when the message is confidential or if you do not want to have a message floating in cyberspace forever.  Remember that the FORWARD button is very easy to use—and incredibly tempting when someone is angry or when the information is just too good (or too bad) not to share.  Once you send an email, you can never get it back – and you lose all control of what happens to it.  You simply have no way of knowing where an email message will end up.  A good rule of thumb:  never put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper!

This blog post is brought to you by Kevin Dincher, PiP Strategic Advisor

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