Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
November 23, 2010 9:10 PM

The New Rules Of Email

It's rare that you come across an individual who feels like they simply don't get enough email.

In fact, the reaction most people give you when you even discuss the topic of email evokes words and emotions like, "overwhelmed" and "out of control" to "I wish it would stop" and "please give me my life back." Volumes of productivity and business books have been written about strategies and techniques to overcome and conquer your inbox. On a personal note, I've come to accept that my inbox is just one big, never-ending game of Tetris - where the email keeps flowing down into my inbox. In this strange race against time, I'm competing to respond and move the correspondences over into their appropriate file folders. Unfortunately (and much like Tetris), the emails keep stacking up and increasing speeds to the top and it's, essentially, "game over" for me. It doesn't end and they are no bonus rounds or extra lives to save me.

The use and function of email has changed dramatically in the past few years.

If you look back to some of the more primitive forms of email, you may be surprised to learn that an email being sent in the early 1970s over the ARPANET (an earlier version of the Internet as we know it to be today) looks strikingly similar to an email that you're reading on your BlackBerry right now. So, while the text and format of the message hasn't changed much, how we use email as a communications tool has completely morphed. With all of the changes in communications coupled with our feelings of hopelessness and constant connectivity (it wasn't that long ago that we all had to go to a physical computer to check our email, and it wasn't immediately accessible in the palm of our hands), there must another way... and there is.

Here are the new rules of email:

  • Rule 1 - Control. When the BlackBerry first came on the market, everyone set the platform to notify them (be it by ringing, vibrating and/or flashing) when a new email arrived. This was simply a functionality and not a rule. You have to learn how to control the technology. Do not let the technology control you. I turn off all notifications for email. Period. I look at my email when the feeling strikes.
  • Rule 2 - Automate. Most people have pre-defined signature files at the end of every email (indicating all of your contact info). You can have multiple email signature files (or you can create templates), so why not use that functionality to pre-write some of the more common responses? I have a bunch of templates as responses for people who are requesting to work for us, speaking requests, requests to interview me, etc. Michael Hyatt over at Thomas Nelson Publishing has an excellent "how-to" post on how to automate more of your standard email work (and be sure to read the additional recommendations in the comment section of his Blog post) here: Using Email Templates To Say "No" With Grace.
  • Rule 3 - Don't reply-all or BCC. If someone is setting up a meeting with multiple people and you are on the list, do not reply-all. Only respond to the person who created the email. If you are the person creating the email, let the other attendees know to respond only to you. Watching the Ping-Pong back and forth is not only annoying, it's a waste of bandwidth and time. Much in the same vein, never BCC anyone. We've been using email long enough to recount embarrassing moments where people have responded after being BCC'd. The best technique is to send your email to the intended person, then go to your sent items and forward that same message to the people you wanted to BCC.
  • Rule 4 - Email isn't everything. Remember the famous saying, "words account for only seven per cent of all communication." Email (and other forms of text) can't express emotion and intent. On top of that, there's only a small segment of the population that is good at expressing themselves with words. This means that the majority of emails can be misconstrued or taken in the wrong way. Don't be afraid to pick up the phone, set up a meeting, catch them on Skype, or walk to someone's office to discuss something.
  • Rule 5 - Write and respond. Smartphones are pervasive. Most people in business are connected and mobile all of the time. One of the earlier email rules of etiquette was not to send emails outside of business hours, so as not to disturb people out of the office. Some of the techniques included writing your emails as drafts and then sending them at a more appropriate hour. The other side was the Type A bosses rattling off emails at every hour of the day/night and expecting everyone else to respond. The issue isn't in the writing and sending of the email, the issue is in the responding. Be clear with everyone on your team (and this includes your clients) about when and how you respond. Let them know that even though you may respond at all hours of the night, they are not required to reply immediately (if it's a true emergency, call the person!).

Set up guidelines for email engagement and ensure that everyone is on side with them.

Because I travel and work strange hours, my team knows that they're not required to respond just because I can't sleep at 4 a.m. or because I'm sending email from a time zone in Europe. There's an emerging trend of email bankruptcy. Individuals making a conscious decision to simply select all of their email in their inbox and delete it. To start over. To hope (and pray) that anyone who was in their inbox will both reach out to them again and understand that they simply can't get out of the tsunami of digital messages that continually pound their way in.

There is no way to beat email, but the only thing worse than more email is no email.

With platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, most of us are now managing multiple accounts. Email (and all forms of digital messaging) is one of the key connecting points for many people in business. How you manage your email and how you setup those expectations will be critical to your success... and to your sanity.

What are your new rules for email? How has your email usage evolved or devolved?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by DrV
    Mitch Joel

    Great post, Mitch. I'll add that I make a conscious effort to minimize what comes to my in box. Newsletters, elective mailing lists, etc. Cumulatively these occupy our bandwidth and make up "information creep."

    Reply
    • I am the total opposite of this. I still love e-newsletters, Google Alerts and much more. I find it much easier to sort through than my RSS reader. I just do my best to not treat those emails as priorities.

      Reply
  • Posted by Brett
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch - Never heard the Tetris analogy to email before but I like it. I've got a few stock email responses as well. Saves tons o' time.

    One little additional time saving e-mail hack that I use is to set up Gmail to manage multiple email accounts for my business.

    Now I just head to Gmail for personal, support, sales, and other email accounts.

    And the best part, Gmail let's you respond as the same address the person sent the original message to. Saves tons of time and headaches logging in and out with multiple user names and passwords.

    Love the book 6 pixels. You Rock!

    Reply
  • Posted by Ryan Knapp
    Mitch Joel

    Since I've started to use collaborating tools (Google Docs, Skype, etc) my email has been cut in half, most of the time email is sent saying 'did you get that last email' or look at this.

    I've sort of devolved from my use of email and instead make many more 2-3 minute phone calls to solve the problem right away. I found a majority of the frustration came from waiting for responses from others. Instead, I got an immediate response with a call.

    Reply
  • Posted by Just a reader
    Just a reader

    Great post!

    I manage my email first and foremost by not using a smartphone. I can't get email on my phone, so I have to wait until I get in front of a computer to read it - which means I get plenty of peace during the day. Yes, I know this makes me a relic of bygone eras, but it's a conscious decision, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

    Furthermore, smart inbox filtering rules help a lot. Digest or subscription emails get auto-filed into a "read later" folder. Emails requiring an instant response get prioritized. I save everything - you never know when you might need it later - but I only keep the emails with action items for me in my inbox. Everything else gets filed away.

    Reply
    • You probably are a bit of an anomaly... the majority of people are shifting faster and faster to email on their mobile devices.

      As for filters, etc... I don't like those. Any emails moved to a "read later" folder don't get read (in my world). But, if it works for you... you're golden!

      Reply
      • Posted by Ari Herzog
        Mitch Joel

        I suppose I'm the bigger anomaly -- as I'm in the process of downgrading my BlackBerry to a so-called feature phone. I don't need to be connected to email and the mobile web wherever I go.

        Keep the phone for talking and texting. Save the web when you want to use it, not when it wants to be used.

        On a side note, Mitch, thanks for FINALLY creating an optional checkbox for people like me to receive follow-up comments by email. Is this a new feature? I've strayed away from your blog because of the lack of this.

        Reply
  • Posted by rfindlay
    Mitch Joel

    I've never understood the "conquer" e-mail thing. I have 4-5 main addresses totaling 75,000 emails from the last 3 yrs. I keep everything that isn't spam. I refer to 2-3yr old messages all the time. I can always find the proof of a doc from a client 2yrs ago... I do ALL my communication in writing - all my clients know it too.

    Reply
  • 1. Write short email (a smartphone helps because the screen is small)
    2. Use multiple email inboxes for bulk filtering
    3. Prioritize incoming email with automated rules (e.g., Gmail Priority Inbox)

    Reply
    • One of the benefits of smartphones and email coming together, is that we are (hopefully) getting to the point where emails will be nice, short and concise. There are other options for more lengthy conversations.

      I don't know about you, but I let those long emails with tons of questions rot in my inbox. I need a Red Bull just to think about them!

      Reply
  • Posted by Jeph Maystruck
    Mitch Joel

    I like it Mitch, nice work. I think the e-mail signature is a very underrated aspect of the e-mail. A lot can be said for someone who takes the time to craft the perfect salutation to evoke an emotion. I love the idea of different templates but I would ask friends or colleagues to give their honest opinion on the signature as well, a second opinion could really help you out in my experience.
    Don't be afraid to have some fun with it as well. When I read an e-mail that is humorous or inspiring, it gives me a great feeling about the sender, like they actually care that I am reading their e-mail.
    Thanks Mitch.

    Reply
  • Posted by Adam Singer
    Mitch Joel

    Hah - email? If you're using email, you're already way behind. Well past time to get a project management system - real work doesn't get done in emails.

    Reply
    • Totally do not agree, Adam (sorry). Look at the stats, etc... I don't think it has to do with age so much as the corporate/work culture.

      Fine, kids in high school are using Facebook or BBM to share... I get it, but try to tell your both that you only connect through Facebook. It doesn't feel like the most secure place to be exchanging.

      Reply
    • Posted by Nathan
      Mitch Joel

      Also disagree with this 100%. I love email...simply love it.

      I prefer having everything in one place, whether dealing with clients, contacts, partners, or employees.

      Yes, I use Basecamp, but a message is still a message. It's not much different.

      Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    I read Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero articles a while back and it literally changed the way I work. ( http://inboxzero.com/articles/ ) Using his philosophy with Omnifocus has made me much more productive.

    Reply
  • Posted by Stuart from the Tea Party (the Band)
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch,

    It would be nice if there was a standard one day where you could add /RR or /RNN after your signature.

    /RR - Response Requested
    /RNN - Response Not Necessary.

    So often people just send you junk and you feel obligated to respond out of politeness.

    SC

    Reply
    • I had an additional point similar to this thought. I think people are actually becoming that much better at email and know when a response is required vs. when it isn't.

      A way to get a response is to simply say at the bottom (or top) to please respond back.

      Reply
  • Posted by Eric Pratum
    Mitch Joel

    It took me probably a good year before I could control myself, but now, my phone can beep, vibrate, and do whatever else and I just won't check it most of the time. I'm paid in part to make smart decisions about when to work, when to rush, and when to let things go, so my colleagues and clients know that, if they can't get hold of me, it's not necessarily because I'm busy with work. It might be because I'm busy with other parts of my life. Frequently of course, I do walk through the door in the evening, put my phone down, let it beep and boop all evening, and then only check it a few minutes before I hit the hay. Many people I deal with have also become accustomed to the fact that I don't want to have to spend 5-10 minutes drafting a response email when we could get it all out of the way with a 1 minute skype session, so it is normal now for me to get an email on a topic, call/skype the person back, and then be done with it rather than having emails bouncing back and forth for hours.

    Reply
    • I'm doing a lot of that myself these days (calling or Skype-ing because writing an email is going to only increase a communication moment that needn't be).

      You've, clearly, uncovered the golden rule: don't let the technology manage you... you manage the technology.

      It's a rule many people (sadly) still grapple with.

      Reply
      • Posted by Eric Pratum
        Mitch Joel

        Oh, I definitely grapple with it. I find myself becoming complacent and forgetting to get those calls and emails out of the way frequently. Right when I get to the point that I'm zipping through email, responding with calls when it's appropriate, or otherwise not wasting time on the technology, I get comfortable and feel like, "Oh, I've got enough time to write this email." Then, I slide into a week or two of trudging through email again only to wake up and realize where I've ended up. But, having recognized that in the last 8-10 months, I'm hoping that I'm getting better at staying more on the time saving side than on the time wasting side.

        Reply
  • Posted by Phil Simon
    Mitch Joel

    I am emailing this post (pun intended) to two of my friends who need to understand how email has evolved.

    I love the line: "The only thing worse than email is no email." Great stuff, Mitch.

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Been blogging about email usage myself last week, I think that while everyone tries to "kill" it as a medium of choice, its importance is destined to stay high for the time being.
    I personally manage to go through it with relative ease, using Gmail myself, and I am guilty of leaving push notifications on on my iPhone.
    You cite very nice rules, even if emails can be overwhelming at times, and people misuse them very often, but it's sometimes just a matter of being better organized and approaching the problem from a different point of view.

    Reply
  • Posted by Guy Wyers
    Mitch Joel

    Hey Mitch,

    Good ideas in your post.
    Couple of years ago, I decided to something about “Rule 2 – Automate”
    The result is an automatic email filing assistant, Tagwolf. It offers one click filing of Microsoft Outlook emails. It’s an intelligent add-in that can reliably predict in which folder an email should be filed and can file the email with a single click.
    http://www.tagwolf.com

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Great post, Mitch. Thanks. One thing I've learned (and you got at this, too!) is that you've got to let your team know your email management style. For example, I check at certain set times within the day (or try ... or at least that's what I tell people, which is ultimately the key here) ... so the message to my team is - please don't use email like a flare or as if it's a note you've passed me in class to catch my attention. I probably won't immediately reply. If you've got an immediate need: call, text, instant message ... Making sure the team knows how I use this particular comms tool is critical.

    Thanks for this post - I'll be sharing it with my network, that's for sure.

    Gretchen

    Reply
  • Posted by Brian M. Johnson
    Mitch Joel

    Great article Mitch. The only thing I'd add is that people need to stop with the "Thanks" email. I totally am in support of an appreciative, meaningful thank you email for people who go above and beyond but I despise my email box filling up with those folks who send the simple "Thanks" for me doing my job

    Reply
    • I'm with you - but there are many people who see that acknowledgment also as a sign of receipt - which can be important. I'm trying to decide if I would prefer a "thanks" email or a "did you get my email" email? I don't like either, but we have to deal with them.

      Reply
      • Posted by Brian M. Johnson
        Mitch Joel

        I'd prefer neither. If the person hasn't responded or, worse, if I haven't turned an item around then there's that device we know as the phone. We can use it to call if a follow up is needed.

        I tend to lean to the side of "if I sent it...they got it". If they call me claiming they didn't because it disappeared into the ether then I always have the trusty "sent items" box from which I can resend if need be.

        It's my experience that people who require the acknowledgment tend to micro manage everything they do...

        (yeah, I know...that's a generalization but ...hey)

        Reply
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