Email recently turned 40 years old. Hard to believe it’s been that long and even harder to believe that given its longevity, it’s one of the communication tools that is so often misused. Many of us feel so overwhelmed by our email in-boxes that we incessantly check our computers and mobile devices day and night trying to keep up.
A number of blogs and books have sprung up to help people manage email and to use it effectively. The blog, NetMatters, offers numerous tips and missives on the proper use of email and even urges people to take an “email etiquette pledge.” Danah Boyd, senior researcher at Microsoft, has gained attention for her promotion of the email sabbatical and provides details on how to take one when you go on vacation.
Even though I’ve noticed that teens and young adults appear to dismiss email as a form of communication in favour of SMS and chat, in the workplace, email still rules. Now that this communication tool has firmly reached middle age, maybe we can finally learn to manage it.
When I look at my own in-box and how I use email, I recognize areas that need reform. Here’s my personal list of resolutions and tips:
1. Not always responding – I try to be good about this, but sometimes I catch myself responding to an email even if I’ve just been copied on it and it’s a matter that does not require my input. There’s no need to contribute to the sender’s overloaded in-box with a response that simply says, “Thanks for the info.”
2. Clear subject lines – It makes me crazy when I’m searching for an old email using every keyword I can think of only to find that the original subject line from the sender was “Re”. That is not a subject line. I’ve resolved that when I get an email with an unclear subject line, I respond and insert a proper one. This makes it easier for me to search in future if required and, I hope, sends a subtle message to the sender that a clear subject line is required. Somewhat related is when someone uses an old email message in order to hit “reply” to send an unrelated new message. The person should start a new email thread to make searching for it later easier and to avoid confusion.
3. Vacations – I need to improve here. When someone is on vacation, I need to stop sending him/her email. This is a tough one because if the person is gone for awhile, I’m afraid that I’ll forget that I need to inform him/her about something upon the person’s return. I think I can solve this by creating a draft email and waiting until the person returns to send it. That way, it’s written and just sitting there waiting for me to click send. I hate it when I return from vacation and have too many emails to deal with, so I need to set the example. Danah Boyd’s solution is a bit drastic but I can see its merits.
4. Visible email addresses on mass emails – I never do this on purpose but it annoys me when others do it. If you’re sending a mass email to multiple addresses, do a blind copy to all the recipients rather than making the addresses visible to everyone. My business email address is public knowledge but the Gmail address I use for personal correspondence is something I want to give out at my discretion. This public group email practice can also lead to the dreaded “reply all” thread that results in email conversations I don’t really need to be part of, which leads me to #5.
5. Reply all – Don’t do it unless everyone in that email address box really needs to be part of the conversation.
How about you? How have you tried to tame your email box? Share your success.