It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when our relationship with email soured. In the early days, things were exciting, uncertain, and a little bit obsessive. We were in love.
Now, we are subtly revolted, exhausted, and more than a little angry with email. Email still loves us – perhaps more obsessively than ever: our inboxes ting throughout the day and night, but we are just going through the motions, despondent and wishing things were better.
If we are perfectly honest, some of the blame must also lie with us. We complain about being harassed, yet a great deal of what we do encourages this badgering.
Our relationship with email needs to change. We need counseling. We need ground rules. We need to rebuild and perhaps redefine our relationship with email. We might not ever be in love again, but we can at least try to be more civil with one another.
It sounds strange, but taking the time to set up your personal email protocols can end up saving you a great deal of time.
What you can do:
- Stop checking your email obsessively. You are not missing out. And it isn’t good for you. Set aside two or three times throughout the day where you check and reply to email. And stick to them.
- Keep it separated. Don’t check your email during your breaks – or when you’re socializing with family and friends. If at all possible, do not answer work-related email after you get home. If you must, set time aside for personal email once a day.
- Disable notifications on your phone and tablet. Also disable onscreen notifications from your email software. Then, go to your social media and other accounts and disable email notifications.
- Close your email while you’re working on something else.
- Keep it to yourself. Do not publish your email address online in forums and on social media.
- Create a separate account for your personal emails. Don’t have your personal emails come through to your work address.
- Unsubscribe from annoying newsletters. If something is obviously spam, mark it as such instead.
- Create automated filters and rules to separate and categorize mails from particular people or related to particular topics. (Some people also like to create folders related to urgency or the type of action required.) When you do wade through these, they are often easier to deal with because you are focused on that one aspect rather than having to flit around between many different topics. Also, you will know what needs to be dealt with, the kind of action required, and how urgent the matter is. For help in creating filters, go HERE for Gmail and HERE for Outlook.
- Plan ahead. It isn’t always possible, but if you know something is happening in a few days, rather send out details earlier than leave it until the last minute and then mark you mail as ‘Urgent!’. (Oh, and don’t mark something as urgent if it isn’t.)
- Use a temporary or disposable email generator if you have to sign up for an online site or service you don’t fully trust. Having said this, if you don’t trust a site, don’t use it.
- Plus it. If you’re using Gmail, add a + and then any combination of letters and numbers to indicate which site you’ve used this address for. This way, if you receive spam, you know who’s to blame. Example: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Don’t add to the noise. If you can and it’s appropriate, discuss smaller issues in person instead. And if you must send out emails after hours, take the time to enable the ‘delay sending’ feature until office hours. Remember: if you send less, you’ll get less.
- Keep your mails and replies short, professional, and polite. Remember, email etiquette is not the same as interpersonal etiquette. Being concise is not being rude, it’s being respectful of one another’s time. Also, be very wary of trying to be overly familiar and quirky: email doesn’t carry tone well and these types of email often cause hurt feelings (and more mollifying emails).
- If you are going to use your phone to send quick emails, add an automatically generated line saying something like ‘Sent on the move’. This way, people are less likely to be offended by very concise messages.
- Reply if a reply is needed. Very few things are as disconcerting as an important email which goes unanswered – unless it’s getting a response where none is needed.
- Be very wary of the ‘reply all’ function. Not everyone needs to be in the loop.
- Make smart groups. Set up, or ask your administrator to create appropriate, well conceived email groups so that mass emails only go to the relevant people. At least half of our work emails are irrelevant – and this is because our groups are not set up correctly. As an alternative, consider something like Slack or Microsoft Teams for group-focused messages.
- Filter out unwanted and harmful email by making sure your firewall and antivirus programs are up-to-date… and please don’t follow any suspicious links – no matter how enticing.
- Delete or archive emails you are finished with from your inbox. Remember: for most email platforms, deleting something from your inbox does not delete it permanently, it just moves it to a different folder. (Delete these deleted items with caution though – this second step is usually final and you never know when you might need to resurrect something.)
- Use it or lose it. If you haven’t replied, acted on or archived a message and it’s just hanging around in your inbox, delete it.
- Use intelligent subject lines. If people know exactly what your email is about at a glance, they’ll know how to respond.
- Set up an email footer to include the final salutation and your name so that these can be added automatically.
- Automate what you can. If you find yourself typing the same or similar messages constantly, consider setting up a template, a canned response, or a macro. For help: HERE for Gmail and HERE for Outlook.
- Flag emails in your sent items folder which need a reply or some kind of action and then do a daily or weekly blitz on these.
- Use your away message cleverly. When you go on vacation, let people know – and stick to what you say. (Also, consider using these more strategically – such as when you are going to have a very busy week and you know you will not be able to read and answer emails.)
- Don’t reply to an email if you are angry. Rather let it simmer in your inbox for a day or two. Angry emails often result in more emails. And it isn’t nice.
What your employer can do:
- Create an organizational email policy which includes restrictions on sending out emails outside of working hours.
- As a more radical measure, administrators can block access to the email server while employees are offsite so that they cannot send or receive emails when they are not at work.
- Insist that appropriate and carefully considered groups are created so that bulk emails only reach the relevant people.
- Insist on proper communication tone.
- Have a 48 hour turn-around for replies.
- Block the addresses and domains of pushy vendors who try to contact different members of an organization. This is especially important where employees use formulaic addresses.
- Always make sure that security patches, firewall settings, and antivirus programs are up to date.
- Set up a system of codes for use in the subject line such as ‘NRR’ for no reply required, or ‘URR’ (urgent reply required), or even ‘IDI’ (important details included).