Ever feel like you’re in the middle of a game of Ping-Pong at work, except it’s not a little, white ball you’re volleying back and forth—it’s email?
If you do, you’re not alone. According to recent email surveys, the average employee receives more than 115 emails per day.
Over the last two decades, email has become the killer business app, and for good reason. It’s reliable, inexpensive, convenient, and ubiquitous. To be sure, email is invaluable for certain types of communication. Yet we have overdone it.
Far too many employees rely upon email exclusively for internal communications. In the words of Nick Bilton of The New York Times, "There is no escape: Email is probably the most invasive form of communication yet devised."
Perhaps you can’t imagine life without email. But we don’t have to be slaves to our inboxes. Here’s how to take back control:
At its core, email is not terribly effective as a communication medium. As Modeuro founder Andrew Killick explained to The Wall Street Journal, we only use email correctly by leveraging it to communicate across time zones or answer a well-defined question about 20% of the time. The majority of our emails, he says, are either filled with useless information or are an ineffective attempt to convey messages better suited for a phone call or face-to-face discussion.
And we’re just getting started with the deficiencies of email. For one thing, email can lead to misunderstandings since there is no way to convey tone, facial expressions, and other forms of nonverbal communication that help people decode meaning.
Our reliance upon email encourages distractions and interruptions, which inhibits our best work, or what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi terms Flow. And email makes us dumb, something researchers commissioned by Hewlett-Packard revealed about a decade ago now. For some reason, though, we continue to ignore this fact.
In addition, email search is still lacking. To be fair, this has greatly improved compared to 15 years ago. Still, it's a far cry from web-based searches.
All of this would be moot if vast better tools didn't exist. But I don't see how anyone can possibly make that case today.
Dozens of truly collaborative tools such as HipChat, Smartsheet, Slack, Yammer, and others are making millions of employees' work lives less overwhelming.
Email is not inherently ineffective or inimical. On the contrary, it can be an extremely useful medium for discrete messages. Relying exclusively on it, though, is rarely wise.
I abide by a three-email rule. After three, we talk. You can find those very words in the email signature, and I’m not afraid to politely invoke it. If that costs me potential business, then so be it.
Recognize that some (in fact, many) conversations are best held in person, not in Outlook or Gmail.
We love to demonize applications like email. After all, they just have to sit there and take it. They can’t blame us back. But it’s important to realize that we control the tools we use; they don’t control us.
—Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker and recognized technology authority, and he consults with organizations on matters related to communications, strategy, data, and technology. Simon is also the award-winning author of numerous articles and seven management books, most recently Message Not Received.