Email wrap-up: habits, techniques and etiquette

Today is the last day of July and my last post on email re-casting the whole month of blogging in terms of habits, techniques and etiquette. The key email habits are limiting the time spent on email, yet seriously dealing with every received message, and keeping your inbox to zero. There are dozens of techniques for doing so utilizing the power of automation applied to processing and archiving messages as well as composing your own email. Finally, etiquette is really all about seriously thinking about people who will receive your message and not just giving in to your Lizard Brain.

The best place to start with email habits is to go through a certain routine every day (or every other day if you don’t receive a lot of emails). Open your email and start with the oldest message:

  1. If you can deal with the message in 2 min or less (I may define “2 min” as “5 min” or as “30 seconds”, depending on how much time I have), deal with it!. This means read it, respond to it, save the important information in a place you can find it later or simply delete it.
  2. If the message requires a longer action save it as a reminder, reading material or a reference.
  3. Delete the message you’ve processed or Archive it ‘just in case’.
  4. Proceed to the next oldest message and do it until your Inbox is empty.
  5. Close your Mail program and start real work.

If you attempt it regularly, other pieces will fall into place. You will learn to write only short and necessary emails, reflect on and gradually improve the way you organize and manage non-email information, and become very selective in what tasks you commit to. Your mind will both shape and adjust to your email habits as our memory adjust to Google (thanks, Csaba!).

The whole idea of developing skills with email techniques is to make room for real work, by avoiding unnecessary cognitive overload (making choices, thinking, reaching for your mouse) when doing repetitive tasks. There are two automation tricks I forgot to mention in the previous posts. One is pretty obvious: keep one Inbox. Every decent email program (Apple Mail and Gmail including) allows to collect email from different servers and send your own email using different identities and return addresses. Just go to Preferences – Accounts and set up your servers (IMAP servers are much preferable). It is impossible to keep your Inbox to zero if you have five different inboxes! I am always surprised how many people do not understand this rule (I can easily identify such people when they either ask “Which email address is best for you?” or tell me “I’m sorry I missed your message. I forgot (!) to check that mailbox.“)

The second little trick I am using more and more often is switching to plain text in email. I often receive messages (especially parts of longer treads) which are written in a variety of crazy colors, typefaces and font sizes. All these variations convey no useful information and make email very difficult to process. Fortunately, it is easy to remove all formatting in your own response. Apple Mail shortcut for switching to plain text is Cmd-Shift-T. It’s among my favorites.

Let’s conclude with a few words about etiquette. I already mentioned the Email Charter and the Send book, but the advice on how to deal with email has recently really proliferated. Check for example the most recent post Ten Emails that Could Cost You Your Job from Forbes and the links to various new books within it. Despite this advice there is no much improvement in understanding of email etiquette. Just a couple of days ago I received an email consisting of 16 words of the main text (including the greeting and the closing line), 49 words of signature and corporate advertising, and 287 words of automatically added quotes from Einstein, Picasso, Franklin, etc. The issue is not even about the efficiency (the ratio of useful/useless information) of this email but rather about the recipients who have to interrupt their flow to decide what to do with the unsolicited information automatically dumped on them.

This sad encounter made me think of email etiquette in the context of our battle with the Lizard Brain. Which side of the battle are you on? Are you helping people who receive your emails to face the difficult choices, to focus, to go beyond the stone-age instincts? Or are you befuddling, tempting with distractions, and slowing them down? As they say in the Matrix: choose your pill!

The Pill from the Matrix

Make the choice, enjoy the battle and have a nice summer!


About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
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2 Responses to Email wrap-up: habits, techniques and etiquette

  1. Pingback: Using Sente and Papers to handle references and bibliographies | Academic workflows on Mac

  2. Pingback: Managing email with SaneBox | Academic workflows on Mac

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