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Effective Email for IT Professionals

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We all know that email can be a very useful tool for communication and action in the modern business. But it also can waste huge amounts of time. Pat Brans suggests several best practices that can help you to make the best use of your time with email, without letting it consume your entire day.
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One of the most powerful notions on personal productivity came about well before the information age. Here's how it works: When you sit down at your desk to go through the stack of papers that have been nagging you for attention, pick up each document in succession and throw it away, file it for reference, or act on it immediately. Don't put it back down on your desk to work on later. This practice can be summarized as follows: "Touch each document only once."

This simple idea is easily extended to email. Don't open your mailbox until you have time to work your way through messages, and "touch" each message exactly once. If an item is junk, move it to the trash icon. If it contains useful information, but requires no action on your part, keep it for reference. In all other cases, act on it or reply to it immediately.

How Often? How Much?

Some people keep their email software open all day and get notifications upon arrival of new messages. Other, slightly less-obsessive people, check their mail several times an hour, either at their desks or on their smartphones. But unless you're waiting the arrival of a specific, important message, and you can't take action until you get it, constantly checking your email turns out to be a huge time-waster, because you're constantly jumping back and forth between two or more tasks. When computers multitask, they always lose time but never information. When people multitask, they lose both time and information.

The motivation behind this practice of constantly checking email is also questionable. According to Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D., of DePaul University, procrastination researcher and author of the book Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, when faced with something we really don't want to do (for whatever reason), a common avoidance mechanism is to set up a system of distractions, such as email notifications.

To keep interference to a minimum, a good habit to get into is to open your mailbox only at certain times of the day—for example, at 8:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m. When you sit down to work on your mail, set aside enough time to clear out your inbox. These habits will free you to think about other things during the rest of the day.

In case you're wondering how your daily volume of email compares to that of other IT professionals, let's go straight to the top and consider the throughput of one of the world's most successful software engineers. Bill Gates has said that while he was running Microsoft, he would set up filters so that he got around 100 messages a day. These would be from people he knew or anybody in a partner company with whom he had already corresponded. In addition, he would read a write-up from his assistant about some of the other email that he filtered out.

Minefields of Ambiguity

In their book Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication, Alton Barbour and Mele Koneya say that 55% of what we communicate is through eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body posture. Another 38% comes from tone of voice and rhythm of speech. Only the final 7% is via the actual words and their meanings. Whether or not this very precise breakdown is exactly right, there's no denying that an awful lot of information is communicated through what we see and hear.

Another observation is that we tend to fill in the blanks. When we don't have enough information, we interpolate and extrapolate to complete the picture. A perfect example occurs when we see a minimalistic sketch of a face, in which only five or six lines are drawn. Often you can still recognize the person, because you take the little bit of information that's provided and fill in the details on your own.

Given these two points, think of the enormous opportunity for misunderstanding when we communicate via email. There is neither body language nor tone of voice; and the conversation isn't back-and-forth in real time, so we can't ask for immediate clarification. We read the words and fill in the missing information. Not surprisingly, we often get the meaning wrong; still more frequently, we misread the emotion behind the message.

Certain terms also lend themselves to easy misinterpretation. For example, take the acronym ASAP, which is literally short for "as soon as possible." Since we frequently hear ASAP used in the context of a boss issuing an ultimatum to an underling, when a sender uses ASAP in a message, even when the intention is to stress that the message recipient can get to the request whenever possible, it can seem as if the sender is barking an order. Another rich source of miscommunication is in the excessive use of capital letters and exclamation points, which frequently come across as shouting.

Best Practices for Effective Email

  • When sending a message, navigate around ambiguity and add extra words to make your feelings clear. A good way to avoid sounding harsh is to use the word please liberally. Call the recipient by name, and go out of your way to sound constructive.
  • When reading a message, give the sender the benefit of the doubt. Instead of reacting immediately to a message that seems insulting, take a break and come back to it. On a second reading, you might catch meaning that you missed in the first reading.
  • Acknowledge receipt of the message. (That is, unless you don't want to build a working relationship with the sender.) If a full reply requires a lot of work, you might simply say that you got the message and will provide a full response by a specific time, such as tomorrow afternoon. Consider these possible ways in which the sender might interpret your lack of response:

    • The message didn't reach your mailbox. (Possible, but hardly likely.)
    • You didn't notice the message among all the other messages you get every day.
    • You read the message and will respond later.
    • You disagree with the message content.
    • You dislike the sender.

    If you don't reply, the other person will quite likely choose the interpretation that reinforces his or her fears.

    Some of the CEOs with whom I work have set up a personal rule to get back to everybody within a certain amount of time. One person, who runs a consulting company, tries to respond within four hours because doing so reinforces the service-oriented mindset he likes to maintain. Another told me that he tries to reply to all communications by the end of the same day. Still another has set up a company-wide rule to reply to all mail within 24 hours.

  • Be careful about forwarding messages. Maybe the sender didn't want to share his or her thoughts with the other person. Or maybe there's something embarrassing or insulting to the person who receives the forward. It's a good idea to check over the content carefully before forwarding.
  • When you write to somebody, try to make it easy on the recipient. You don't want to create unnecessary work, and you want to make it as easy as possible for people to respond. Keep the message short. If you have to ask several questions, consider sending more than one message. That way, if there's a question that requires more thought, the recipient can easily get back to you on your other queries in the meantime.
  • Avoid composing messages with sections addressed to different people. Otherwise, you're asking the readers to filter out large parts of your correspondence that don't concern them.
  • Always use a subject line. You want something that cries out for the message to be touched, but you also don't want to be misleading. Choose a few words that give the recipient an idea about the content. If appropriate, include an indication that the message requires action. For example, if you're waiting for your boss to approve a project, you might catch his attention with this subject line: "Decision Requested: Go ahead on project."
  • Address people at the beginning of the message, as if you were sending a letter. This practice makes it clear that you're talking to the recipient, and it's much better for relationship-building. Some people like to start out with "Hi Pat," "Dear Pat," or simply "Pat," followed by the content of the message.
  • Signing off is always a good idea. It provides a clear indication that your message is complete, it allows you to express a feeling toward the other person, it gives you the opportunity to set an expectation (perhaps "Thanks in advance for a quick reply"), and it's a good way to set a date for your next exchange.

See you next time!

Pat Brans

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