Checking and responding to e-mail is one of the biggest time consumers in the modern office these days. How has one of the most successful leaps in technology and necessary components of the office become such a burden? The system is misused and abused. It is not just spammers causing harm, but also family, friends, co-workers, and sometimes even ourselves.
Almost 70 percent of the e-mails sent in September were spam, according to Symantec’s State of Spam monthly report. If you are not using spam filters on your mail server or mail application, you are probably wasting time going through e-mails you do not need. If you are using Outlook, make sure you have the latest updates from Microsoft (http://office,microsoft.com). Whether using a Mac operating system or Windows, select the “Mark as Junk” feature, rather than just deleting junk messages. Those systems continuously learn. As you mark more things as junk, the more the system understands what is junk and filters it out before it gets to your inbox.
Family and friends also hamper e-mail productivity. I will be the first to admit I have sent non-business related e-mails, but I do not mass-forward them. Most chain e-mails are as functional as chain letters (and usually about as accurate). Mars will never appear to be the same size as the moon, dialing *77 on your mobile phone will not contact the highway patrol, and, although Bill Gates is giving away his money, it is not going to people who have mastered the art of the forward button. I recommend going to Hoax Slayer (www.hoax-slayer.com) and Urban Legends Reference (www.snopes.com); check the validity of your message before passing it along.
Finally, I believe we are our own worst enemy. We do not use e-mails as we should. We work too quickly, we are not careful about whom we copy, we forget the lack of emotion conveyed and get ourselves into unnecessary trouble. E-mail is not the be-all of communication; therefore, it should not be used that way. Just because you get an e-mail that needs immediate action does not mean that action needs to be another e-mail.
Do not hide behind e-mail. If you are going to send a résumé via email, make it formal. Not in the form of a page-long rant, insulting the company’s latest campaign. This will not get you any points with the decision makers, and probably get spread around the office (I have seen it). Do not reply to the company newsletter if you are upset about being laid off, and do not insult other employees while doing so. Everyone is on that mailing list, not just the boss (I was on the list).
I recently read Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by D. Shipley & W. Schwalde. It is more interesting than it sounds and more useful than I expected. The book delineates pitfalls of e-mailing and better practices for writing effective e-mails. The authors recommend the title as an acronym for sending better e-mails: Simple, Effective, Necessary, and Done.
Keep e-mails simple; do not let the message get lost in the text. Is the message effective at communicating your message? Is the message necessary? There is wasted time in sending frivolous e-mails. Does the e-mail you send require something to get done? If so, how are you going to follow up? This book is an excellent, quick read that can help anyone become more effective at sending e-mail.
The key to successful e-mailing is realizing it’s not always the answer. Although e-mail is an extremely effective tool, it does not replace the emotional connection of face-to-face interaction or a phone call. It is akin to the decision to use a slotted or Phillips screwdriver. Both are used to turn screws, but both will not work in every situation. Before sending your next e-mail, consider its context – is there a more effective way to communicate your message?