Dante was wrong; there are ten circles of hell, the deepest of which is reserved for those who commit the most heinous of email sins. Email is here to stay but there are some sinners who are making it worse for the rest of us. Today I’m going to look at some of the most grievous ways people can abuse email and make life suck for the rest of us.
Don’t worry though, even if you are a sinner, you’re not doomed to an eternity of suffering. Embrace a weeklong penance to correct the error of your ways and repent your email sin and all will be forgiven.
Read on to find out whether you are an email saint or sinner.
Sending Emails to Too Many People
Email is incredibly cheap to send. One person can spend five minutes writing an email and send it to thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of recipients. It’s also, in broad terms, extremely costly to receive. If it takes two minutes to read, or even just 30 seconds to dismiss, the number of people-minutes a single email can waste is huge. This amounts to a massive waste of productive time. Even if you take steps to minimize the impact, like setting up a multi-tiered communication system, you still have to deal with it at some point.
Too many organizations have policies where anyone, everyone, and everyone’s dog is CC’d on all emails. Not everybody needs to receive every single email. If you’re one of the people making those policies, or just CCing everyone out of habit when you don’t have to, you are an email sinner.
Don’t worry though, the penance is simple. For a week, only send emails to the people who absolutely need to receive them. If in doubt, don’t send the email. You’ll probably be surprised at how little effect it has on how everything runs.
As a bonus, the more email you send, the more you’re likely to receive so if you’re facing your own email overload, this can help too.
Overusing Reply All
Email’s at its best when it’s used exactly like a letter: one person sends another person a single message and waits for them to respond. Email also works when one person sends a single message to loads of people (so long as they all need to receive it). Even with great features like threaded messages, email just isn’t designed to handle multiple messages properly.
The problem becomes really apparent with group emails. I rank them slightly higher than the nuclear bomb as the worst technological development of the 20th Century. An email thread with 15 or 20 people replying can rapidly get out of hand if people aren’t careful. And remember, every message that is sent is another notification for someone somewhere.
While the first message might have been relevant to everyone in the organization, the chances are that the responses aren’t. If your boss sends out a question to the entire staff, do your co-workers really need to see your answer? Over use of the reply all button is one of the greatest email sins you can commit.
Again, the penance is quite simple. For a week, you must only use the reply button. If more than one person needs to see the response, manually CC them. The reply all button is an evil temptation that must be resisted.
Emailing When You Don’t Need To
Sometimes email is the best way to reach someone. Sometimes it isn’t. Unfortunately, email is often seen as the default. Emailing when you don’t need to is another way to get yourself sent straight to email hell.
Sometimes there are better ways to get things done. If Tony sits across the room from you, unless you need to create a paper trail, why not walk over and speak to him? Similarly, if something’s going to require a lot of back-and-forth, a face-to-face or phone meeting will probably be a lot more efficient. A 30 minute phone call can take the place of week long email discussions. Just make sure you don’t let your meetings turn into a time vacuum.
Your penance is to do everything you can to not send emails for a week. If Tony isn’t at his desk when you walk over, leave a handwritten note. If Bob wants to organize something, call him and hammer it out on the phone. See how changing your default from “send an email” to “only send an email if there’s no other option” affects how you work. Everyone’s inbox will thank you.
Sending Overlong Emails
Just as sending a short email to too many people is a sin, sending really long emails to just one person can be too. If what you’re trying to say requires a 2000 word email, the chances are you’re using the wrong communication tool. The longer your email, the more time it takes for the other person to read and the more effort it requires to respond. Long emails can really suck!
“I didn’t have time to write a short email, so I wrote a long one instead.” – Mark “Marky” Twain
— Harry Guinness (@HarryGuinness) April 28, 2015
There’s a growing movement of people pledging to keep all emails under five sentences. They feel that if the message can’t be conveyed that briefly, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re guilty of writing emails that edge into Tolstoy-esque territory, then your penance is to join the five sentences crowd for a week. No email you send, no matter how necessary it seems, can run longer than five — preferably short — sentences. It’s a good habit to get into and will make you more productive.
Replying to Every Message
This is the sin I was most guilty of, and it took me a while to get past it. When you get an email the natural impulse is to reply straight away. The problem is that this can draw you into unnecessary, reactionary exchanges and people will come to expect that you’ll be available to respond instantly to email at all hours. Responding to all emails instantly is only a small email sin, while the converse, expecting everyone to reply instantly is a bigger sin.
By responding swiftly to everything you’re feeding the beast that is the boss who demands email responses at 4am on a Saturday. Thou must not pander to such bosses. As penance for this sin, you must spend a week waiting at least an hour before replying to emails, and only responding during work hours. If something requires an urgent response, you need to use another method of communication.
Go Now in Peace
Love it or hate it, email is here to stay. However, there are ways to make the experience better for everyone else. If you’re a terrible email sinner, repent your ways and put some of these simple solutions into action. People will thank you for it. If, on the other hand, you’re an email saint, forward this article to any sinners you know and spread the good word.
There are countless other email sins out there. What ones do you think I’ve missed? And what penance would you suggest?
Image Credits: xkcd.org.
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