24th March 2015

Why Email Fires Us Up

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton maintained a personal email account for state-related correspondence. When questioned as to why she made this choice, she cited ‘convenience’ – It was more convenient to maintain one device versus two; it was more ‘convenient’ to use the personal email address and server.

This caused a firestorm.

Conversations about email and email use are front-page news stories. Email fires us up.

Why? What is it in each of us that cares so deeply about our personal use, and apparently the personal use by others, of email?

We cannot live without it.

We thrive on it.

We use it as a distraction, as a time filler, as an excuse.

Absolutely no one can and does function without email today.

Email was first used as a communication device by the Department of Defense in the 1950’s. It exploded in personal, pop culture popularity and business necessity when the internet and personal computers became more affordable in the 1990’s. From there, it became a slippery slope – the more devices it became available on the more embedded it became in our lives.

The advances in technology paved the way for email to exploit a basic, fundamental human need – connection. Humans are wired for connection and connectivity with others. Email provides constant connectivity to others and the world around us. If we’ve always got access to email, we’re never bored, we always have something to do, and we always have someone to respond to.

Email also triggers something deeper in all of us – it validates that we are needed. It makes us feel important and valued. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think that he or she looks important checking his or her email on their smartphone while waiting in a line at Starbucks?

If we’ve learned anything from the Hillary Clinton email firestorm, it’s this – we need to reclaim control of not only our email processes and systems, but our conversation about how we engage with email.

It is time to shift the conversation about email away from that of convenience to that of strategy.

Here are five strategies to reclaim control of your email:

Read Your Email Messages Once

Obvious? Maybe. The fact is though that you are probably reading your emails – and then rereading them over and over. For example, do you read your email while engaging in conversation, during the last few moments before a meeting, when standing in line for coffee, or while you have one foot out the office door? The result: we only retain a fraction of the contents. Which means we must reread them. Which means we’re wasting precious time.

This problem sounds trivial, but let’s assume you receive 100 messages per day, and that it takes you approximately one minute to read each one. That means you invested one hour and 40 minutes reading your messages once. But, if you were unable to read and understand them fully the first time, and, therefore, you need to go back and reread them, the time you’ve now invested amounts to three hours 20 minutes.

Get into the habit of opening your email only when you have the time and energy to read and absorb the contents.

Act On Your Email Messages

Take action on your email messages.

1. Follow Nike, and “just do it.” If you can complete the requested task or answer the question in three to five minutes or less, just do it.

2. Delegate the email to someone else. Are you the right person to respond to the message? If not, delegate it, and do so immediately. You can either forward the email to the right person (after adding a few words explaining what you’re doing) or write a brief response to the original correspondent recommending the appropriate contact and copying the contact on the message.

3. Convert the email into a task. This simply means reading the message, deciding on your next action step, and converting it into a task. It’s as easy as changing the subject line of the email to your next action step, converting it into a task using the task function in your email program, or creating one or more appointments directly from the email – whatever works best for you.

Ask Your Email Program to Remind You of Your pending requests.

Ask your email program to remind you of the requests you have made via email where you are waiting on a response. Automate your follow up by setting up and using the ‘waiting for’ rule.

Here’s how it works: When you send an email where you need a response from the recipient, cc yourself on that email. That email will then be automatically saved in a folder you have designated for all of your follow ups. As new messages are automatically added to this folder, the numeral indicating how many messages are in the folder will become bold. No longer will you spend hours searching through sent messages or trying to remember if you have followed up on your open requests. Your email program will remind you.

Automatically Prioritize Incoming Messages.

Automatically prioritize your incoming messages by color coding incoming messages by sender. For example, you might color code your manager red, your top clients in green and turn the messages where you are cc:ed to light gray. So, when you open your inbox, you can quickly scan looking for the most urgent messages, those from your manager or key clients.

Make Email Work For You, Not Against You

We teach people how to treat us. Where have you either consciously or unconsciously taught your colleagues that you automatically respond to every email message regardless of time of day or the day of the week? Where have you defaulted to using email when a quick phone call would be more efficient and effective? When you hear the new message ping do you automatically open your inbox? Email is your communication tool. If it is no longer supporting you and the way you chose to work, what do you need to do differently?

Email should support who we are and what we do – when we become so deeply invested in email and how it makes us feel, we lose the art of connecting with people. The loss of that connection is what should really be firing us all up every day – personally and professionally.