How many emails do you get per day? 50? 100? 500? You have to wonder, “what happened to my inbox?!”.
In an increasingly noisy workplace, we are constantly bombarded with frustrating emails (make sure your emails aren’t) that are competing for our attention.
Like clutter at home, our ability to manage it lies more in our first point of contact than in marathon spring cleaning sessions. But how do we make these micro decisions day after day?
The opening pages of the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry” does an awesome job of describing digital fatigue:
Every email, ping, and buzz is like a finger tapping on your shoulder.
How many times do you feel a tap per hour? Per minute?
Dealing with email shoulder taps is a matter of recognizing archetypes and reacting appropriately.
Automated Emails in My Inbox are Robotic Shoulder-Tapping Machines!
To start, you probably receive a good deal of automated emails, both solicited and unsolicited. Imagine a robotic arm giving you an annoying shoulder tap at a programmed interval, forever. If it’s unsolicited, why are you putting up with that? Flag it as spam so you don’t have to feel that tap anymore.
If it’s solicited, set up a rule to auto filter those emails to a separate folder from your main inbox. This is like asking the robotic arm to tap you in a unique way, so that you know its the stupid robotic arm again without turning around to see who’s tapping.
Do you have the ability to reprogram the robotic arm? If so, set it to tap less frequently if you can live without a daily message. Or even better, turn the tapping machine off!
CC: Field Emails in My Inbox are Light Taps to Show You Something
With robotics out of the picture, I’m a firm believer that every human tapping your shoulder deserves at least a second of eye contact. How else would you know if something is urgent or not?
Pay attention to where you are addressed; are you in to TO field or are you CC’d? Assuming people use those fields correctly (if not, address that first), a CC is like someone lightly tapping you’re shoulder and then silently pointing at something. Their expression says “FYI, this is a thing that’s happening”. There shouldn’t be a call to action here unless you don’t like what you see.
BCC: Field Emails in My Inbox are Light Taps to Show You Something Secretly From Around the Corner
Depending on the politics of your organization (network engineers, get your primer here), you may get BCC’d, which is just like the CC tap, except you’re invited to peek around a corner secretly. “Shhhh, look!”. Take note of anything important, but for the love of everything good in the world, DON’T reveal that you were copied!
Alternatively, the BCC field is used for large distributions to avoid “reply all” nightmares chains. Imagine if someone tapped you and a hundred other people, you then tapped back PLUS the other hundred people. Then those hundred people tap everyone to say “stop tapping everyone”. Then someone else does the same to say “you’re a hipocryte!”. Lets not bruise our shoulders over that nonsense.
TO: Field Emails in My Inbox are Moderate Taps to Tell or Ask You Something (or, they’re supposed to be)
The rest of your inbox should be emails addressed directly to you (among others) and consist of people talking to (or at) you when you turn around. These taps are a little stronger but not alarming. Ironically, a lot of these should be lighter CC taps because there may not be any call to action for you. Where appropriate, politely ask for a CC in the future so you can manage your inbox more effectively.
Call to Action Emails in My Inbox are Shoulder Taps Combined With Having Your Name Called
These taps are the ones that we instinctively spin around for, and rightfully so: someone is genuinely asking you for something. To find these, search first for your name in the body and/or a question mark. These are the most common differentiators between a call to action and an FYI.
Emails Flagged Urgent In My Inbox Are Shoulder Slaps Spinning You Around!
And then there are the emails flagged as urgent, or have the word URGENT in the subject line. These are like someone slapping your shoulder and spinning you around! Man, was that really necessary?? If not, kindly let them know where appropriate (#r00d). If someone’s spinning you around instead of tapping you, it better be a fire or other truly urgent need. Otherwise, the noise will give you alarm fatigue, which reduces your ability to react quickly to a real fire.
Instant Messages are Taps From the Front That Can’t Be Ignored
What about instant messages, AKA pings? These are the same as emails, except the person is tapping your shoulder from the front instead. If someone’s standing in front of you, you wouldn’t lock eyes with them and silently step around them; that would be inappropriate! So why do we leave people hanging on their ping?
Do your best to address them immediately or ask for them to tap you later since your in a hurry. At the very least, change your status to “busy” or “in a meeting”. This is like, after getting tapped, having a phone to your ear and giving them the “hold on” expression and gesture. To some this is rude, but at least you won’t leave them wondering if you got their message (they might email you with Subject: Hey did you get my ping?).
Be a Part of the Solution!
The best way to slay the email monster for good is to keep yourself in check as an example. Do you really need to send that FYI? Would an in-person conversation be more effective? Thinking twice before clicking send is akin to putting change in a change jar. Over time, the small habit adds up to an entire jar full of unsent emails that would have wasted people’s time!
What other tactics are there for dealing with the email onslaught?
Photo credit: “Inbox Terror” (CC BY 2.0) by andymangold