Monday, September 06, 2010

Email: A Love-Hate Relationship?

I just got through glancing at yet another article that purports to tell me how to Get More Stuff Done, and which, as seems to be de rigueur these days, includes the advice to check e-mail only once a day.

Without question, e-mail can be a huge time-sink, but I am surprised by the number of people who still treat it as some sort of outside influence, a thief whose only purpose is to steal time. One may also waste a great deal of time on the telephone—in fact, it’s my opinion that e-mail is a more efficient way of communicating that telephone, in most instances— but I have yet to see anyone advise that telephone messages should be returned only once per day. It would be bad advice indeed to say that one should begin his or her workday by returning any messages that may be found in voicemail and then unplug the phone for the duration of the day. Seems pretty unlikely that customers, clients, co-workers, or employers would appreciate much all of the time I’m “saving” by having only one set time during the day in which I “do” telephone.

Why would anyone think that e-mail is any different?

The beauty of e-mail, in my experience, is that I can e-mail you when it’s convenient for me and you can reply when it’s convenient for you. There’s no pas de deux in which we play telephone tag while trying, perhaps in vain, to connect in real time. Talk about time-wasters!

Naturally, there’s a lot of junk and distraction to be found in e-mail, but anyone with a lick of sense quickly learns how to filter that out as he or she scans the inbox list, deleting that which clearly is unworthy and leaving for later that which may be interesting or noteworthy, but not important at the moment.

And anyone without a lick of sense will find other distractions to waste time with.

The other efficiency that e-mail offers is to allow both the sender and recipient to get to the point! For instance, I returned to my home office the other week to a phone message from an acquaintance. His message basically told me who he was and that he wished to talk to me, and his office number. No idea what he wanted to talk about, so no way to prepare for the conversation, if preparation was indicated. I returned his call and left a message; he called back and we connected. We discussed the reason for his call, and set up a time to meet. All of which could have been handled in two e-mail messages.

But that requires that one monitors his or her e-mail just as one monitors his or her phone messages. I would never return from lunch, or a meeting, or any other adventure away from my desk without checking for messages; why would I not do the same with my e-mail messages? The idea is absurd to me.

Yet I am aware of some people’s love-hate relationship with e-mail. Sometimes it has to do with a greater technophobia, but just as often it seems rooted in that attitude I referred to above, in which e-mail— perhaps the computer itself— is still viewed as some kind of “outsider” in the workplace. These people, I find, tend to put off “doing” e-mail for as long as possible, which only means that it is a bigger and more daunting chore when finally they undertake it.

Which is another reason I think the once-per-day “rule” is bad advice: It only means that the inbox will be teeming with messages the next time you check it. To visit it periodically throughout the day and weed out the debris is much more efficient.

Some time back I worked with a woman who, well, hated e-mail. It was a chore, a burden, a distraction. She viewed it as something that took her away from her work rather than a communication medium that was as much a part of her work as the telephone or a written letter. She tended to avoid “doing” e-mail, with the result indicated above: When she forced herself to look at it, she had literally hundreds of messages! Worse, many of the were messages that required action— yet another reason the once-per-day advocates are steering you wrong. Which made the process an even bigger chore, which meant she avoided it all the more, and on and on. The snowball effect.

I recall one day in which she complained— partly in jest, but of course partly in seriousness— that she had spent the entire morning “doing” e-mail. She had replied to one particular message, and then moved down the list...until she got a reply from the person she had just replied to! And she was a little put out by that. “Don’t people have anything better to do than e-mail all day?” she railed— again, only partly in jest.

To me, that attitude was and is bizarre. Would she have felt the same about a telephone exchange? Let’s say she came in to work and had voicemail from a person. She returns the call, gets his voicemail, and leaves a reply. Two minutes later the guy calls her back with a follow-up question or comment. Would she complain that people have nothing better to do than telephone all day? Seems unlikely.

It occurs to me as well that “wasting” time is largely in the eye of the beholder. What you may view as my waste of time may be to me a legitimate undertaking— indeed, even a time-saving undertaking, since we all know that there are many instances in which an investment in time is required now in the hope of streamlining a process later.

Almost everyone agrees that the best way to tackle a large chore is to break it down into smaller pieces than can be handled one at a time. Why, then, would anyone advise one to let e-mail pile up until it becomes a large and onerous chore? I suggest it’s because the would-be adviser has issues with e-mail; and my advice would be to ignore that advice!

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