The two scourges of the modern workplace are e-mail and meetings, and I think it’s fairly hard to argue that. On the e-mail front, to wit:
- No one really contextualizes their e-mails (so everything seems urgent)
- It’s impossible to infer tone (so many people seem like a total dick)
- It’s a representation of your org’s power structure (so where you rank is tied to how/when you reply)
- People are slaves to it (which is making them sleep poorly)
- No one seems to know whether e-mails should be short or long (and if anyone really reads anything anyway)
- The overuse stats should make you want to self-immolate (yep)
Every digital technology — and e-mail is foremost among those — kinda came about quickly, without specific rules on use and etiquette. Sure, marketing experts rushed in to define how we should be acting, but no one really knows. There are no set rules — and whatever rules there might be are completely tied to how your organization works (see above).
But there’s one simple rule you can follow across companies and industries when you send e-mails.
When you e-mail, add value
It’s that simple. It’s defined here somewhat:
Before you send a reply, ask yourself: are you responding just to reply, to show you’re paying attention, or just to say “thanks?” If so, you’re typically wasting time that could be spent producing something of value and only encouraging people to respond, thus adding more email to your inbox.
This is crucial, and many people miss the boat here. Let’s run through some steps.
- E-mail is not actually work.
- It’s a way to discuss, and potentially advance, ideas around work.
- It is, however, something you need to stay on top of.
- It does, however, interfere with actually productive work.
- If you simply reply to something to be heard or throw in your 2 cents, that makes everyone else less productive.
- Your career is ultimately judged (you would hope) by your productivity and not your e-mail response rate.
- Those things are different.
People confuse those things because of “The Temple of Busy,” whereby people confuse productivity (doing legitimate, forward-moving things) with being busy (essentially a sign that you don’t have good control of your life and priorities).
In short, then: never reply to an e-mail unless you believe you are adding some legitimate value to the discussion. It’s that simple.
(The other thing you can do is simply go around and talk to people, instead of e-mailing them.)
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.
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