Are You Suffering from E-mail Incontinence? - Next Action Associates

Hearing complaints about the volume of e-mails is an occupational hazard in our trade, but the odd thing is that the same complaint is heard from people getting 30 per day and those receiving 300. No matter what the number, I think we have more influence over the volume and speed of what we receive than we are perhaps aware of. Not total control, but I’ve noticed recently that I do seem to be able to influence the volume of inputs I get in both a positive and negative direction.

I see there are three things that we can do that move the needle in the wrong direction:

1. Not responding quickly enough (or at all)–I’ve worked with clients for whom a good 15-20% of the inputs they were getting were from someone asking for a reaction to something they had sent earlier. Once your environment no longer trusts your ability to respond in a timely manner then they have to develop coping strategies, which will include putting reminders in their own system to mail you again, calling you to see if you got the last mail, or–worse–coming over and interrupting you to request a response to whatever they just sent you.

2. Responding too quickly–when I’m spending too much time in my inbox, then I’m often responding too quickly to mails, and–as a result–responding to the same string and all the various comments from those copied 5-10x per day when once or twice would have been plenty. Some of the topics might even have been handled by the time I got to them at the end of the day.

Part of the challenge is that–as a junkie for novelty–there is a much more immediate reward for working on something fresh (and often quick and easy) than there is in working on something gnarly and strategic.

The other part is a throwback to our days as makers and movers of things we could see, and we do it because it feels good to see progress, any progress, even if only with that little number that tells us how many mails we have in “in”. But driving that number down is more about my neurosis than it is about the world’s need to hear from me double quick. There is a big difference in responding because of my need to respond, and their actual need for my response.

3. Sending mails out of office hours and on the weekend–similar to the previous point, insofar as I think that when I do it I’m mostly just taking care of my own need to clear a few things and try to ‘get ahead’ of tomorrow or of Monday morning. The challenge is this: like an arms race gone wrong, if I respond to an e-mail at 10pm, I very often have it back again by 10.30. This e-mail incontinence keeps me from ever “winning” at the game of emptying my inbox. Worse, I add my contribution to the culture of “always on”–a significant cause of stress in the workplace–particularly if I’m the boss.

Some possible solutions:

Decide on your personal/team/organisational policy for e-mail–what can people expect/not expect from you in terms of response times? Your choice will be influenced by both the nature of your work and the culture of your organization, but for most people a 24- or 48-hour turnaround on all incoming would be a dramatic enhancement to the responsiveness in the system.

Here’s the thing: if you’ve ever had a dog, you know that all the time you are training your dog, he or she is working on training you. Each time you open the door when they scratch, guess who got trained?

The same is true with your communications network. If you generate the expectation of a 10 minute turnaround by responding to everything as it comes in, do not be surprised if your correspondents start chasing when you need a couple of hours to get back to them. If, on the other hand, everyone is trained to expect a response every 24 hours, and not every 24 minutes, you’ll have created a tremendous amount of free space to work with when you want to get strategic with your time.

When I float this possibility in a workshop I’ll sometimes hear, “yes, but you don’t know my boss, he flips out if he doesn’t hear back immediately”. That may have happened a couple of times, but I think it is also part of a mythology that has developed around need to respond immediately. Sometimes it is necessary, but surely even the most demanding boss is not expecting that you respond at the speed of light to each and every brain fart from the back of a cab on the way to the airport. Not every mail. They pay you to respond urgently to the urgent ones, not to every one as if it was urgent. There is a difference.

Declare an e-mail amnesty–Feel free to work if you want to, but don’t send anything out after a certain time and on weekends. Simply use “drafts” after 7pm and on the weekend. In my somewhat inelegant and slightly scatological metaphor, “drafts” is the diaper that keeps everyone from…well, you get the point. After some light personal experimentation I can say that it is a much different experience to clear my inbox and know that nothing that comes in overnight is something that I generated for myself. At 7am every morning the ceasefire ends, and I’m back in the firing line.

I’m happy to take calls after 7pm if it is urgent, but after a 6 month trial there have been only a handful of situations that required some bending of the policy, and no significant breakdowns as a result of implementing this as policy.

Give it a try; I suspect no one will notice, and if they do it won’t be to complain that you are no longer mailing them on the weekend with new things to worry about while they are trying to spend time with their family and friends.

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