Until E-mail Goes Away, We Need Tips to Control It

Ann All
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Tips on Controlling Your E-mail So It Doesn't Control You

It's no secret that I fantasize about doing away with e-mail. Earlier this month I shared the story of an IBM employee who dramatically reduced his dependence on e-mail by switching his communications to internal IBM communities and external networks like Facebook or Twitter. Instead of getting 30 to 40 e-mails a day, he now gets 20 to 30 a week.


He says he is not only more productive but "more passionate" about his work, thanks to the enhanced "feeling of contribution" he gets from participating in his communities.


As great as that sounds, I am not yet ready to take a similar leap. Much of my office communication is done through instant messaging, so internal e-mails aren't a big problem for me. Like many journalists, I'm a bit superstitious. I know that the day I shut off e-mail is the day Steve Jobs will choose to send me a personal note. And I get most of my story pitches via e-mail, although admittedly only a small percentage of them are of interest. (An increasing number of ideas come from Twitter these days.)


So while a girl can dream, e-mail will remain a part of my life for the foreseeable future.


I am, however, always looking for good ideas on how to better manage my e-mail so it doesn't get the best of me. I like to share when I discover good ones, as I did in November with tips from Six Pixels of Separation blogger Mitch Joel. My fave from that list: Just as you create templates for and automate your electronic signature(s), consider doing the same thing if you find yourself making lots of more or less standard responses to certain e-mail inquiries.


I just found a list of 10 great e-mail taming tips on 99percent.com, a few of which I already use. Some of them are more about etiquette than productivity, a topic IT Business Edge colleague Lora Bentley (one of the most polite people I know) has tackled a few times in recent months.


My three favorite suggestions from 99percent.com:

  • Communicate "action steps" first, not last. This goes against the common e-mail practice of beginning with a summary of a meeting or conversation, before eventually listing any action steps. But reversing the order and putting the actionable stuff first will help ensure folks see it.
  • Don't ask open-ended questions. Instead strive to be proactive and take the lead in your communications. In one of the examples, if you're proposing a deal, offer a bullet-pointed outline of the parameters upfront. Yes, the terms of the deal will likely change but your outline provides a clear starting point.
  • Use "FYI" for e-mails that contain no actionable information. In author Jocelyn Glei's workplace, an "FYI" tag appears at the top of all e-mails that contain information that folks are not required to act on. As she points out, this facilitates easy filtering of non-actionable messages, whether by scanning visually or creating a rule in the e-mail client.

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