Of all the technology tools large and small that have become a routine part of the business day, email is by far the most insidious. Sure, it presents itself as a great little time-saver, a communications enabler ready at the click of a few keys to do your bidding, but who (or what) is really in charge?
According to a 2006 survey of adult employees by Harris Interactive, for instance, 59% of the respondents who use email at work admitted to wasting “a lot” of time searching for lost email, while 28% said the volume of email they receive causes them to fall behind in their work. “Without the proper search and storage tools, email can actually reduce productivity levels. Companies are wasting huge amounts of their employees' time just sorting through, filing and saving email for future use,” the surveyors concluded.
Ah ha! I suspected as much. In my very own office, email is always trying to wrestle control of the workday away with various tricks for eating up time, like general messages flagged as urgent with bright red exclamation points to capture my attention, or those tiny red flags flapping at the margins of the email list signaling that someone expects follow-up, and preferably right now. Then there are those long email strings that require tracing back to the source in order to decipher the mystery of the message, rather like explorers Speke and Grant looking for the head of the Nile River. Even if you ignore most of the forwarded jokes, chain letters and spam, it all takes time.
“This has got to stop!” I recently confided to the computer screen. “Honestly, I am beginning to think there is just nothing that sneaky little high-tech helper won't do to get in the way of real work.”
Thank goodness my Web browser was ready to assist. We set off together to look for ways to take charge of email once and for all. As it turns out, there are some surprisingly useful little techniques for tricking the trickster and taking back your time. At www.43folders.com, for instance, Merlin Mann offers “Five fast email productivity tips,” including ganging email activity into focused (maybe even timed) sessions every two or three hours rather than checking email every few minutes; handling the “easy ones” right away with short replies; and developing text templates to streamline answering frequent questions rather than writing essentially the same reply from scratch over and over.
The folks at www.lifehacker.com also share ten more “Tech tricks, tips and downloads for getting things done.” Some of the suggestions on their list include: differentiating messages sent only to you from those sent to a group of people; using a strong set of customizable filters to help separate needed information from repetitive reminders; and grouping and organizing regular contacts to save recreating long “To” lists one address at a time. Some of their other suggestions sound great, but are probably tougher to master, such as never forgetting an attachment, although apparently there are tools like an “attachment reminder macro” (what?) from Outlook to help.
At www.mondaybynoon.com, editor Jonathan Christopher offers yet another idea for managing email. Sometimes, he notes, making a short phone call can keep things moving along and prevent misunderstandings much better than a long string of back-and-forth email messages.
What I like best about these techniques, especially that last one, is that they can perhaps help busy workers save enough time to focus on really communicating and doing it thoughtfully and well, rather than on processing email as fast as the Boy Scout's wood chipper grinding up Christmas trees for cash after the holidays. After all, success isn't measured by the size of the “Deleted” folder — at least not yet.