Every week more and more organisations are waking up to the tyranny of email, and the part it is playing in the impending death of the office. We spend hours each week , up to four years of our lives, shifting low value (or no value) information from one place in our organisation to another.
Despite this, email apologists will tell you it doesn’t really need to be tamed . There really isn’t a problem: email , for all its faults, is the best thing we have right now.
I don’t believe that for a second.
ATOS chief Thierry Breton , who has banned internal email, estimated that barely 10% of the 200 messages his employees received on an average day were useful. ATOS calculated that managers spent between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails.
Nick Atkin of Halton Housing has announced that internal email will end from this February. He’s said it’s part of a fundamental rethink of how the organisation works, stating “We are taking back control from some of the systems and cultures we have all allowed to develop during the 20 years email has been part of our working lives.”
Email is undeniably wasteful but my problem with it runs deeper.
Email represents anti-social business. It locks down knowledge in silos. It reinforces hierarchy and disconnected thinking. It promotes an insidious system of cc’ing and , even worse , bcc’ing as a way of denying accountability.
Despite that I do use email – it still has uses, but needs replacing as the default way we choose to do work.
Is it possible to seriously tame email without turning it off completely?
Yes. I’ve managed to reduce the time I spend on email by about 75% by adopting six rules.
The results speak for themselves – when I took nearly 3 weeks off work last September I returned to only 20 emails.
So , in the spirit of open knowledge sharing, here’s my six tips for a saner inbox:
1: Don’t send any
This is by far the most effective thing you can do. Every email you send begs a reply – sometimes several. By pressing send you are literally making work for yourself – which is a pretty stupid thing to do. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. There are loads of better tools for keeping people informed of what you’re working on (Note: they probably aren’t interested anyway.)
2: Use WhatsApp for chats
Since the formation of Bromford Lab , we’ve turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It eliminates team spam about cakes and whose birthday it is. And it’s loads more fun too.
3: Create a “Yesterbox”
I’m shamelessly stole this tip from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
The idea: Only deal with yesterday’s emails today.
The rule: If it can wait 48 hours without causing harm, then you are not allowed to respond to any emails that come in today, even if it’s a simple one-word reply. You need to psychologically train yourself to not worry about emails that are coming in….
You can read an outline of the concept at Yesterbox.com
It’s worked well for me as you have a much better sense of which to prioritise – as well as ruthlessly deleting any that aren’t worthy of attention. Which leads us to…
4: Delete any that are three days old
This takes some bravery – but trust me it works. If you haven’t looked at something for three days it simply can’t be very important. Delete it. If anyone is bothered they will chase you up on it. 90% of the time they don’t – it was low value work that never really needed doing.
5: Restrict mail to just four sentences.
If you do get an email from me you’ll see this:
By cutting down the waffle and getting to the point you save time for yourself and the recipient. The link takes you to this site which explains why verbose mails are toxic. If you want to be more radical you can take it down to three lines, or if you’re really hardcore, two.
6: Unsubscribe from everything
Make it part of your day to unsubscribe from at least five email lists. Email marketeers breed like rabbits but you can stem the flow by turning off their constant distractions. Don’t just delete them and hope they will go away – they won’t. Also go into the notification settings of any work networks like Yammer you are part of. Turn them off – you’ll see a huge difference instantly.
I’ve seen radically different results from using these six tips, I hope you found them useful.
Please share any of yours in the comments section – if we get enough I’ll turn it into a slide deck.
37 thoughts on “Six Ways To Kill Email”
Some really useful tips Paul – thanks.
No problem – thanks for reading.
A tool I have used for some time is to have a ‘cc’ box. I have a rule that moves any email that I have been ‘cc’ed into a different folder, which takes a lower priority.
That’s a great tip Paul, imagine that cuts down enormously. Thanks
1. Between offices which are in different places, it is still tolerable.
2. An important aspect is the title of the mail; it is an art in self!
Oops…the last phrase is: ‘it is an art in itself’.
Haha! Easy done. Thanks Ashok for your thoughtful comments as always
As I said in my Tweet – refuse to accept attachments. There are so many great free or low cost collaboration platforms around that there is no excuse for cluttering up your email with attachments. Box works great for document centric collaboration. Basecamp is great for simple project centric collaboration. Email is not a collaboration tool – no ifs and no buts…
Thanks Mark – that is such a great suggestion and you’re right. I’m constantly told there are no alternatives but if anything the criticism are there are too many!
“Email is not a collaboration tool – no ifs and no buts…” – quote of the day
Welcome to #noemail Paul. You might enjoy some of my own posts of 3+ years w/o email as well as Luis Suarez aka @elsua’s 6+ year adventures.
http://ibiblio.org/pjones/blog/category/noemail/ for my posts.
Of particular interest to support your last point, https://unroll.me/ is a great tool. It makes unsubscribing a snap and really saves time.
On Attachments, the Buddha was right: “The second of [Buddhism’s] Four Noble Truths tells us that the cause of all suffering is attachments” See http://ibiblio.org/pjones/blog/he-invented-the-email-attachment-noemail/
Wow – just been browsing a couple of your posts which I have to admit I’ve missed. Now to catch up! I’m familiar with the work of Luis who has been a big influencer on this.
I wasn’t aware of unroll.me so thank you for that too.
#NOEMAIL FOR 3 YEARS, 7 MONTHS, AND 19 DAYS – Inspirational!
I really like the idea of managing it rather than just opting out, as for most employees there is no choice but to use it. Totally agree that email can be incredibly pernicious as it is often the weapon of choice for ass covering and office politics!
This alone is why email should be banned from the enterprise: “it is often the weapon of choice for ass covering and office politics!”
It’s interesting as I started my #noemail journey from the point of view of reducing waste and productivity. But it’s very interesting the role email can play in office politics.
Over the years I’ve heard many arguments over who has been copied into (or not) an email!
I’ve even heard people obsessing over what order their name came in the ‘To’ box. Seriously!
Thanks for commenting both
I like to aim for one or at most 2 emails in my inbox at the end of the working day – it’s a great motivation.
My inbox is not a to-do list! If things need action, they are filed, and I put them on a to-do list.
I do try to call people but being a touch typist , it’s quicker to send an email rather than phone and no one picks up. I need to break this habit.
I could clear out my inbox everyday, but I keep 1, or at most 2 there, because nothing feels very odd, as if I don’t exist and I end up staring at the blank screen in amazement which wastes time!
The filing system I’ve set up works for me. I also attach emails or links back to them in the diary to save rooting around for things.
I don’t need to know everything – I started the year feeling irritated that I didn’t know what was going on in the business and was about to suggest being added to a couple of circulation lists. But when my inbox got into single figures I realised what a foolish move that would be! It filters down eventually.
I’m learning to avoid copying people in! I wish it worked the other way round!!
Email rules – fab for when I send out calls for contributions to briefs or our mag. They all end up in a folder to read at leisure.
Wow Georgette – you’re a ruthless email machine! You raise a really good point about the positives of mail. Calling people and leaving voicemail is possibly an even worse use of time.
Think many could benefit from your discipline in filing and not getting drowned in information..
Great tips Paul. I’ll add another couple:
1) Turn off the automatic notification of any new emails – stops them from popping up on the screen (or better still turn the email off when it’s not needed!)
2) If you do subscribe to any daily emails, automatically put them into a separate folder – means the inbox isn’t clogged up unnecessarily.
I’ve now got in the habit of daily pruning of my email inbox (wish I didn’t have to!), but definitely agree with thinking twice about sending any Emails. My approach in work has made others think twice about emailing me. Good practice spreads!
Thanks Brett – great tips! I think I will turn some of these into a slide deck as it’s certainly got some attention.
I agree in principle that email “etiquette” needs to change. Needless cc’ing and bcc’ing, “respond to all” emails (a particular bugbear of mine), or announcements about a fire alarm in another office can all be hurled into Room 101 as far as I’m concerned, but I am unsure whether some of the solutions you talk about actually solve the problem of efficient working. Moving some conversations to another platform (ie Whatsapp), is just that- moving the conversation rather than eliminating the time spent dealing with it.
I appreciate that it can be more immediate, but it could also lead to people coming away from the business point (we all know what it can be like if you are chairing a meeting and the conversation goes off the main point). When you then bring in other applications for other business needs(Yammer, FB, twitter etc), then managing all of those apps, is surely as time consuming (and confusing for a tech-simpleton like me) as managing e-mails?
My worry about having such strict rules is that it could make some people think twice about approaching you with an idea/suggestion/piece of work etc, as they are unsure of the right platform/channel to use for this purpose, and actually increase silo mentality rather than eliminate it. So I think there is a piece here around ensuring people understand your reasons for implementing the rules (I really like the 4 sentence rule and link to explain it) and also ensuring that the platforms used are embedded in the organisation so that it is not in effect eliminating some elements of the organisation from feeding in to projects/work etc.
And it also assumes a large degree of self-discipline which I’m not sure all of us possess. However, it has, as always got me thinking about how I can tame the beast (in my last company I had a 30minute interview and came back to 76 emails!!!)
Thanks Barry – you’re absolutely right to express these concerns.
Part of the problem is a lot of large organisations are grafting on more and more potential silos that add to email. Some of these have potential (Yammer and the like are least visible to all – there’s no hiding) , others could make the issue worse.
What’s needed – as you allude to – is a total rethink of how knowledge is distributed across organisations. This is where the likes of ATOS, IBM and Halton Housing are leading thinking.
We are more at experimental stage – trying a few things all aimed at stemming the tide.
Lots more thinking to do!
Meant to also say have a look at the work of Luis Suarez (not the one who bites) – article on him here http://www.wired.com/2012/01/luis-suarez/ and on twitter as @elsua
Some brave ideas in this post Paul, which says a lot about how organisations function! I’m certainly giving a few a good try, as well as some of the other ideas like the cc filter. I already use Outlook tasks as my real inbox: I look at it first to decide what I need to do on any given day, otherwise I’m always distracted by the latest messages.
One of the problems for me is that the ‘bosses’, who have a fair share of power over these corporate ailments, usually have assistants, sometimes whole ‘offices’, so I expect they never truly appreciate the frustrations of email. If they did, given they’re typically smart and concerned with both organisational productivity and staff wellbeing, they’d surely want to know if there’s an alternative.
I’m so glad you made this point Shaun:
“One of the problems for me is that the ‘bosses’, who have a fair share of power over these corporate ailments, usually have assistants, sometimes whole ‘offices’, so I expect they never truly appreciate the frustrations of email”
I did mean to mention this in post. I spoke to an Executive not so long back (thankfully not working at Bromford!) who said they honestly could not see what the fuss was with email. He then admitted all his emails were prioritised by his PA. He probably never even saw 70% of them!
Thanks for commenting
Great post and fab comments here too! It seems lots of people want to freedom from email.
I have to admit, I treat my inboxes more like my Twitter homefeed, having a look for the most important stuff when I have a moment but not trying to deal with everything.
I refuse to work for my emails: it’s a tool not a duty. I have notifications on my phone for when I get emails from people I really want to hear from (I set them up as VIPS on my iPhone). After that I aim to sift through to get to enquiries and requests for help. The rest is usually guff.
My main point really is that the person who sends the email is responsible for it, not me. I wouldn’t talk to everyone who came to my door and I won’t read every bit of bumf that clogs up my inbox.
Sometimes friends get a glimpse of my phone and see how many unread emails I have – it makes me laugh how they seem more stressed by this than I am!
Anyway, thanks for another excellent post Paul (and, so you know, you’re on my VIP list!).
VIP list – awesome!
“I wouldn’t talk to everyone who came to my door and I won’t read every bit of bumf that clogs up my inbox” – love that!
A lot of the problem of course is the expectation that’s been built up around email – that it’s to be read straight away. Organisational cultures have reinforced this too setting service level standards on how quickly email should be read. I remember a 24 hour target at one point.
It’s time to end the focus on email being the work.
Thanks for commenting!
Great philosophy and approach, Paul, backed up by helpful tips. Can I add one: never start your day by looking at your e-mail – it diverts your attention to responding to other people’s agendas, away from what you set out to achieve that day. Get your stuff done first, then spend maybe 30 mins (or however long you think e-mail is worth of your time) dealing with your e-mails, just before lunch (applying your rigorous approach).
Thanks Kate and that is such a great tip. I really like the permanent out of office message you get if you email Nick Atkin at Halton – says this account only gets looked at three times a day…morning , lunchtime and at end…
Unsubscribe to everything is a one sure pick from the six, subscriptions only give you (and everyone else) the illusion that you are on top of things, when in practice you skip the messages altogether.
From the comments, I also use a cc box. It’s excellent, and stupid from Microsoft that they haven’t implemented it as the default setting in Outlook. Why on earth does everyone have to re-invent the wheel by finding optimal Outlook settings (like “mark automatically as read” off). A billion dollar opportunity for Microsoft to do this.
And BTW Paul, if you are into product reviews, feel free to check ours out at http://www.collaborationobjects.com
Thanks Amos spot on re the cc box that’s just a massive microsoft oversight.
And thanks for the link – off to have a look now..
It’s taken me a while to be convinced about your (and Nick’s) argument on the perils of email but I’ve become a convert. As someone that’s been in office environments since 1985 (yes I am that old) I can remember a time when we used to do work instead of doing emails.
Thanks Steve and welcome to the club! To be honest it took me a while too but I’ve become more and more convinced work started to become a place to have meetings and send emails rather than focus on the outcome. I think we are seeing the pendulum swing the other way..
Great article, it’s clear that everyone hates email. That’s exactly why we created Glip – all of the communication you need + built in task management, event management that plays nice with ical and google calendar, built in video conferencing and integrations with the tools you already use. For business, whatsapp has nothing on Glip.
Thanks Jeff – I’ll take a look at Glip
Some really great tips in here, I’ll need to try the out. Thief most difficult part will bet to change my teams culture around emails (and then the wider organisation)
Thanks David and good luck – I know it’s not easy! Let us know how you get on