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


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