So, I’m back. I have really missed my weeknotes column and this topic has been brewing in my head for most of the week now. I have clearly got the bug! This is a personal reflection — feel free to disagree. And it’s a simple one — how come email stinks and what can we do about it.
I do hate email — I must confess. I open it with a sigh, at best, and sometimes a bit of dread each morning. And I can’t wait to close it again. I don’t love it at all, but at the same time feel its not really work if I don’t have it open. I confess to having a lot of FOMO. Its the one consistent feature of work I now have in common with the enthusiastic Sarah who started work way back in 1998.
The comparison with history seems a little apt. Email is older than me for goodness sake (1971 if you want to know). I taught my Dad how to use it in 1996. It’s a tad quaint really, isn’t it, the faux memo style, the mirroring of a letter. And the chains of replies go on, and counterpoint is made to counterpoint. I’m not so much reminded of a Bach fugue but an eighteenth-century epistolary novel. Perhaps it's by Jane Austen in her little-known tedious business-cliche period, although nothing like as witty. Nothing like the punchiness, immediacy and personality of a chat group. To me, its very format is cluttered, which feels harder to live with now, especially as we have smartphones and so many other platforms to choose from.
In a recent podcast, someone was selling their new alternative to email. They made a valid point about why it's stressful to use — you don’t control who can send you what, and when. And in my day job, I have a very broad list of stakeholders. Email to me is like having the shop front open, at all times, and the expectant and unknowable queue building up, all getting more and more acute if I ignore it. And its building up. I googled it now and it is increasing 5% pa currently (and this feels like an understatement to me). And email begets email, I’ve lost count of the number of times I have tried to clear my inbox down only to see it rebound on me in the days which followed. Sorry, colleagues.
And those are the generic problems. In my case, the problem goes a little bit deeper. In my case, I made the cardinal error of falling into the habit of using it as a document storage system. I knew this was a daft idea coming into my role and I still slipped into it. Curses. I have now mostly sorted myself out (after the IT team politely pointed out the ludicrous size of my inbox) but it is such an easy habit to fall into. I’m told my IT team are going to switch on a widget soon which allows easy saving of documents into folders. I think I need it desperately.
We have also been using email as a tool for decision making a bit too much. I don’t think we are the only organisation which does this, but it is definitely a huge part of the clutter. I’m nervous to delete stuff in case it's needed for the future. I think we have a potential solution coming up soon, but it does point to the ways we are working internally could be smartened up. I also get spammed a lot (a consequence of hoping to be open as an organisation I think) and I am not always the best at unsubscribing stuff. I’m also stuck in a halfway house with folders which aren’t fit for purpose either, (being set up three years ago and my work has changed a lot). I can never decide whether it is better to hold my email via conversation or via date either and spend too much time flipping between the two.
To be honest, in a way I do have the inbox I deserve. A long time ago I threw my hands up saying email is a lost cause and haven’t really devoted enough time to it since. Or ever. But despite my sins, I don’t think that investing a great deal more time in the working week is what’s required. Lord knows we don’t need more email time! Or going commando-ruthless and into the space of inbox zero (although hats off to you if you can do this). No, the solution is much simpler.
The real answer is structuring it right.
I— restructuring folders. So simple of course — going to borrow from Graham Allcott on this — I need to sort mine out and I will feel a lot happier. Having tried both I think less is more and rely on search functions. And if I am really honest, a lot of stuff I hoard I never use (see IV below).
II— agreeing the right channels. Yes, this is the critical one. We have a lot of channels in work to use now (Slack, Whatsapp, Google Chat all being prevalent with me). It would be helpful if we proactively agreed on which channel suits which person or circumstance. This also goes for decision making and transparency stuff too. I think email ends up being the default channel — the A&E of communication problems. It does have its place for certain types of measured, considered communication, I do have to say. But would rather it was at the 1998 levels and not at the current hectic amounts!
III— clearing down the storage attachments regularly. Staying on top of what's in the inbox. I’ve had success with setting up “icebox” and “awaiting from others” folders, and should probably try that again.
IV- enjoying deleting — getting rid of the hoarding instinct. Upping the spam filters. I think I need to be a bit more ruthless on that — rather like you can turn off the history in chats. I know already which items I will need to keep. So why keep it all? I need to turn around my habits there.
V — set email response times— ie be intentional and set response times in the week or having a set response time. How about a week? ;) I’m not quite brave enough to go for that long yet, but this is going to help too. And switching off the app for periods within the day too. They’ll find me if they really need me.
There we are — how simple can it be? I think I have almost persuaded myself you know. So, let's see how I get on in the next week. Of course, it is each to their own of course. Be interested to hear what your approach is…