7 Ways We Can Work Together to Restore E-Mail Sanity

7/13/12Follow @wroush

Just like you, I’m locked in a perpetual battle against e-mail. I spend the whole day fending off the incoming messages, like some cranky old dude standing on his porch with a weed whacker. I feel compelled to do this, because if I don’t, my inbox will quickly swell beyond my ability to tame it. It’s exhausting and depressing.

So I’m always on the lookout for new tips and tricks that might shift the balance. (Or a better weed whacker.) If you’re a longtime reader, you know that I’ve written many columns exploring palliatives for the e-mail plague, with titles like How I Declared E-mail Bankruptcy and Discovered the Bliss of an Empty Inbox, and Okay, You’ve Declared E-mail Bankruptcy, Now What?, and Gmail Fail: The Problem with Priority Inbox, and Could A Game Be the Answer to Your E-mail Woes?

But while each of those articles made useful points, they were all were focused on things that individuals can do on their own to manage their e-mail burden. For a long time, I thought I just needed to find ways to be more efficient about my incoming messages and how they get prioritized, labeled, answered, archived, or deleted.

More recently, though, I’ve come to believe that the real problem isn’t how I process messages. It’s how to ensure that I get fewer of them in the first place. There’s no point in struggling to be more efficient about processing my e-mail if the time I save is just going to be eaten up by an ever-increasing volume of incoming messages. (And increasing it is. The average corporate e-mail user gets 110 messages per day, according to a study this spring from the Radicati Group, a Palo Alto, CA-based research firm. That’s expected to grow to 125 per day by 2015. Unfortunately, my average is already much higher.)

Stemming the flow of incoming e-mail is something none of us can do on our own. Every message you receive started somewhere, after all. And conversely, every message you send ends up burdening someone else. So the e-mail crisis is really a collective one. We all have to deal with it, we all share some responsibility for it, and we’ll only fix it by acting together.

What I’m proposing is that we focus for a minute on the outbox instead of the inbox. If we all sent fewer outgoing messages, it’s a mathematical certainty that we’d have fewer incoming messages to deal with.

So here are a few concrete suggestions for ways to throttle back the e-mail volume. No, not suggestions—pleas. Desperate appeals for understanding and cooperation. Help me out here, people!

1. If you don’t need a reply to an e-mail, put NNTR in the body of the message.

Many e-mails are informational and do not need to turn into two-way interactions. If you can be more explicit about which of your messages actually require an answer, and which ones can simply be acted upon and deleted, your correspondents will thank you for it.

I suggest highlighting these types of messages using the handy acronym NNTR, for No Need To Reply. You can put that next to your signoff, or even in the subject line. I’m going to use this mechanism a lot more in the future, because there’s nothing worse than spending hours answering and archiving all of my messages, only to find that my inbox now contains dozens of replies to my replies.

Conversely:

2. Unless someone explicitly asks you to reply to their e-mail, don’t.

It may feel unceremonious and impolite to let an e-mail thread die without some kind of cheery reply, along the lines of “Will do!” or “Thanks, see you soon!” But as I was just saying, there isn’t enough time in the universe to delete all these needless messages. It’s kinder to let the conversation drop.

By the way, I’m referring to business e-mail here, not necessarily to personal correspondence. There are still some types of e-mails—formal invitations, expressions of sympathy, catching up with friends, flirtation, etc.—where a little conversational badminton is in order.

3. Don’t use the cc: or bcc: lines.

Did you know that cc: stands for “carbon copy”? The phrase dates back to the pre-computer era, when a typist would insert a sheet of carbon paper between two pieces of paper to make a duplicate. All of that went out sometime after Mad Men, and today cc: and its devious cousin bcc: (for blind carbon copy) belong on the same scrap heap.

Think about why you would add someone to a cc: list in the first place. It’s not because you really need to reach them, or you would have put them in the to: line. Well, if you don’t need their direct input, then don’t bother them in the first place. If you must cc: someone, do it for the right reasons. My friend Stever Robbins, a career advisor and productivity guru, has an excellent post here on exactly what those are. By the same token, never use the Reply All button—unless, of course, you’re trying to take revenge on someone who cc:d you.

4. If your message is simple enough, put the whole thing in the subject line.

The recipient will not be offended by your brevity. On the contrary, just think what bliss it will bring when they receive a message that they can read and delete without even having to open it. There’s an acronym to signify this type of one-line missive as well: EOM, for End of Message.

Many e-mail clients will resist you on this one, asking you in a pop-up whether you really meant to leave the body of the message empty. Ignore it and move on.

5. Don’t send an e-mail when an IM, a text message, or a DM on Twitter will do.

All of these other forms of communication encourage shorter messages that are more goal-directed and to-the-point. Also, there’s a less rigid set of expectations around them—people don’t get as antsy and irritated if you don’t respond right away. (A phone call is sometimes a good substitute for an e-mail—but think carefully, since a ringing phone is an interruption and is often even more bothersome than an e-mail.)

A hat tip to New York Times blogger Nick Bilton on this item. He wrote last week that he’s going to take a cue from his teenage cousin, and shift more of his communication over to text, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Talk while paying less attention to e-mail. I hope it works out for him.

6. Don’t send an e-mail when Google or Siri can answer the question.

Are you looking for directions, trying to find a phone number, or confirming an appointment? Don’t take up a fellow human’s time. Let today’s super-duper search and calendar tools take care of it—that’s why our defense establishment invested billions of dollars in AI research. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have minions who keep track of all these things for you, feel free to bother them. Just don’t be surprised if they reply by directing you to lmgtfy.com.

7. Don’t spam people.

Do I even need to say this? Apparently so. I’m not talking about true industrial-strength spam, which is a separate problem, or about e-mail lists or subscription newsletters. I’m just talking about the mass messages we send out even when we’re not really sure if the recipients will be interested. To give you a personal example: every day, I get dozens of press releases from PR representatives who clearly haven’t bothered to check whether I cover their industry or their geographical area. With a little research, they could have narrowed down their e-mail blasts to people who would be more likely to respond—and less likely to be annoyed.

* * *

There you have it—seven small ways you can help to stem the e-mail flood. Of course, I’m as guilty of contributing to the crisis as everyone else. I want people to think I’m nice, for example, so I often break Rule No. 2 about not replying unless asked. But when I have to spend every other weekend zeroing out my inbox, the cost of being nice is getting too high. It’s time to try something different.

If you’ll stop e-mailing me, I’ll stop e-mailing you. Deal?

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.facebook.com/VCRrepairman Del Riley

    What did we ever do before email? I know, we actually got real work done.

  • Jill D.

    You give me hope! : )

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Great Jill! We have to work together on this! Also, I’m still on the lookout for better e-mail management tools and will continue to report back about that. Right now I’m trying out one called Sanebox.

      • Jill D.

        you are Jill’s parent? don’t you think it’s a little biased praising her post?

  • Jordan

    This article sucks

  • http://www.facebook.com/tammy.karn Tammy Smith Karn

    I suspect that many people handle e-mail like most of male colleagues – they ignore it until someone tells them “Hey, I need a answer to…” or “Have you….yet”.

  • http://about.me/miketrap Mike Troiano

    The model is broken, Wade. Turns out empowering the whole world to push what they want at us with no variable cost was a bad idea. Hence, social media…http://bostinno.com/channels/helping-people-over-30-get-social-media/