Feeble NYT article: Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast. Thousands of emails, can't manage, etc.
At home I am not so reliable a correspondent, but not terrible. At work though, email is a part of my job. These are the lessons learned over decades of business email use.
First, start with the goals:
- Solve business problems efficiently.
- Build respectful relationships
- Eliminate replies. Inferior email multiplies. Superior email terminates. Get the job done with a single message.
- Turn your work email into a searchable knowledge repository that will add value over years and decades.
- Email is an essential part of my job, but there's no credit for email work. It's a means to an end. I schedule 1 protected hour in the am, 1 hour in the pm, and deal with it opportunistically in between. I switch Outlook into offline mode so I don't get distracted by notices between scheduled times.
- When sharing knowledge, make your email a link to a blog post or a wiki. Instead of sending updated emails, update the blog post or add to the wiki. Interested persons can subscribe to the post/wiki feed. This helps eliminate
- Manage email using some variant of the GTD two minute rule.
- No email lists. Lists should have been buried long ago. If there's no feed, the owners are clueless. In theory I could auto-route into a folder and make them fodder for full text search, but in practice I don't do email lists.
- Use a feed reader for event subscription/notification. No Sharepoint 2007 email alerts, just feeds.
- Don't file email. The single killer feature of Outlook is the ability to edit the subject line. If email is worth keeping, then revise the subject line as needed and dump into the Save folder. Full text search, like Windows Search or Spotlight was invented to save you filing time. I do have 4-5 active project folders I throw things in, but this takes me no time and I don't worry if I get it wrong.
- Learn your full test search engine very well. You will use it all the time.
- Keep only the last email in a discussion thread. When I Search and find a long thread I delete the redundant emails as a part of my search work (quite fast, makes future search more effective).
- Spend time on emails. Bad emails create more bad emails. Craft the subject line carefully. Say what you need/want done/want help with. If the email is informational only say no action required. Clean up the copied email thread in the email so only the core information is there. Eliminate the thread.
- Email breeds email. Send as few as possible. Learn to reply to complex emails by creating an appointment.
- Don't do anything complex by email. Email is for simple things. Email should fit in a small window.
- Never bcc except to yourself. Use CC very carefully. Resist people who extend CC chains. The To line is strictly for people who have to do things.
- Don't send thank you emails to people who know you. They are a necessary email for many coworkers however.
- Don't use email to manage tasks. Drag and drop an email to a task icon
- Reserve 1-2 hours twice a day for email.
- If you find you're doing frequent important emails with one correspondent, schedule a weekly 30-45 minute meeting. Put all the topics into tasks or an appointment agenda. Discuss and send a summary email if needed.
- Triage your incoming email by rules that operate on sender and to line. If I'm not on the to line I rarely respond to an email.
The point is, it can be done. A key is to improve email quality to reduce volume.
This is largely cultural, the only technology component is the ability to edit subject lines (Are you listening Gmail?) and full text search. Culture takes a while to develop, but we're getting there.