Email is not the problem: how we use it is.

Email frustration

I've been working with electronic messaging (email, etc.) in one form or another for over 30 years. Back in 1992, I (successfully) sold a server-software product that promised to help people deal with the "flood" of 40 emails a day! Much of my executive coaching business has revolved around helping professionals manage their email (many receive up to 400 a day).

I've had a front-row seat to the rise of email along the whole way. For many people, it's grown into a monstrous beast. A couple years ago, McKinsey & Company found that workers spend up to 28% of their day writing and reading emails. Inboxes fill up over lunch breaks. We're all guilty of being too quick to send to others whose email is just as out-of-control as ours.

I think that's at least half of the issue: who's creating the problem. I also think we can definitely find ways to address this together.

As email has grown in reach and volume, methods for effectively dealing with it have not kept up. I see several reasons for this:
  • People tend to think that email itself is the problem, not how they use it, so they look for other solutions instead of better ways to use what they have
  • Vendors like IBM, Microsoft, Google, and others continuously promise shiny new solutions that distract from the real problem without addressing it
  • Email is typically considered a receiver's problem. I've found almost nothing that addresses how email is sent.
 Proven methods for dealing with received email are not complicated, but they require learning new habits and ways of thinking. Again, these aren't hard, and they don't take much effort to learn, but consistent effort is required.

Methods for effectively sending email are certainly not widely shared. I'm trying to help fill that gap -- that's why I offer my Top 10 Tips for writing email as an incentive to follow this blog.

I think email, as a medium of communication, has some fantastic capabilities that can't be matched by almost anything else, and I think the solution to the problem of too much email needs to be a shared and social solution -- an agreement.

Handshake.jpg
Here's a framework I came up with for thinking about these kinds of problems and solutions, based on my years of research in productivity and knowledge management. My "value equation" describes this as Value = Knowledge x Methodology x Technology (or V=KMT).  

In the case of email and how we use it, our "T" is moderately high (because this is a reasonably capable technology), but our "M" for using it (as senders and receivers) is low.

In other words, I don't think we're going to collectively relieve frustration with email without two things:
  • Shared knowledge on how to process email effectively
  • Shared agreement on how to write and send email and when to use it
After focusing for so long on who deals with the problem (receivers), it's about time we  balance it out by acknowledging who's creating the problem. It's not any one of us: it's all of us together, and all of us together need to learn how to solve it.

What we need is an email agreement -- or "egreement" for short. I don't think it needs to be anything formalized, but there should be a general practice that people recognize and follow.

I hope you'll join me in creating and following this!

Best,

Eric

P.S. When tweeting about this issue and how to resolve it, please use the hashtag #egreement.

@EricMack | @eProductivity
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For more about my V=KMT framework, see here.

More from Inside.eProductivity:
Why your late-night emails are hurting your team - [read more]
4 steps to recover from email overwhelm - [read more]

Image credits:
"Handshake" image by Duisenberg [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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