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Email Lets Other People Schedule Your Life—Here’s How to Stop It

Constantly checking our inbox makes us stupid.

The following is adapted from Phil Simon‘s Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It.

If you feel like you’re playing Whac-a-mole with your inbox, you’re not alone. Somewhere along the line, email became the default means of communication in corporate America. The Radicati Group estimates that the average knowledge worker receives around 100 emails every day, a number that is rising at around 15 percent per year. In July 2012, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) released a report titled “The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies,” which found that typical employees now spend fully 28 percent of their work time managing email.

Think about it. If you work 50 hours per week, then 14 of them are spent reading and writing emails. I doubt that you spend as much time in any one application, including Microsoft Word and Excel.

Perhaps these numbers wouldn’t be problematic if email were an effective communications medium. To be sure, it can be—for certain types of discrete exchanges. Much of the time, however, it’s not. Yes, email has its place, but we’ve become far too enamored with it. Constantly checking it makes us stupid.

For years, email has been scourge of business communications. Yet far too many of us blame email for our woes. We love blaming “technology” because but it’s harder for us to look in the mirror. If we do, then we’ll realize that the problem isn’t email; it’s how we use it.

The goal is not to eliminate all email altogether, although some employees have essentially done just that. The goal is to use it more intelligently. Think of email as just one club in the bag.

How to begin?

Reject the notion of a “conversation” over email

There is no such thing as a real conversation over email. Period. The back-and-forth of emails and text messages offer the appearance of intimacy. Unfortunately, it’s a false one, as Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago proved.

The two psychologists showed that people could only accurately determine sentiment in text-based communications about half of the time. Emoticons and emojis aside, others often can’t tell when we’re being sarcastic, serious, or comical. Misunderstandings often result. Are you willing to flip a coin that others fully understand your message?

Abide by a three-email rule

Once you’ve accepted this fact, then it’s time to take action. I abide by a three-email rule: After three, we walk. What’s more, I am not shy about invoking it for administrative matters (such as setting up meetings) and sensitive matters (such as difficult conversations).

The rule has saved me a great deal of time and frustration. To be fair, though, not everyone likes it. I invoked it a few months ago and a perennially “busy” friend of mine promptly responded with, “I hate you.” Every organization in the world should adopt it. Sure, one can see the case for legitimate exceptions, but it’s high time to change our “default to email” mind-set.

Ban “urgent” emails in your company

If an issue truly is urgent, then employees should not be sending emails to one another. Opt instead for the phone.

Use something other than email to manage your tasks

Email wasn’t designed as a task-management application, yet many employees use email for precisely this purpose. As a result, it is it any wonder that they become distracted? You check your inbox for an update on a key project or task only to get derailed by a stream of unrelated work or personal messages? It’s easy to get distracted and forget what you were trying to do in the first place.

For task management, use a separate application. I’m a big fan of Todoist, but DropTask, GetFlow, HiTask, and scores of others offer a superior way to work. There’s no single replacement for email; it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. The same holds true for project-management. Trello, Asana, and Basecamp are just some of the affordable, user-friendly tools that minimize the need for incessant email chains.

Look for communication canaries in a coalmine

Few, if any, people take a job with complete freedom. As such, they are often unable to choose their existing colleagues, clients, partners, and staff. When assessing a potential relationship, though, things are different. Some people are too “busy” to be bothered with quick phone conversations. They would rather send 10 messages than talk to you for two minutes in person.

In these cases, pay close attention to how others communicate (read: words, methods, and the like). Ask yourself whether you really want to interact with people who are averse to phone conversations and simple language. Try to vet job applicants, potential partners, and vendors early on. If they are averse to phone conversations, then what are the odds that they will change their tune down the road?

Realize that there is life beyond email

Are you afraid of moving away from your inbox? It’s understandable, but your organization wouldn’t be exactly be trailblazing. Companies like Klick Health do not use email internally. As its current CEO Leerom Segal frequently says, “Email is the ultimate tool for letting other people prioritize your day for you.”

You can follow Phil on Twitter at @philsimon and his websitephilsimon.com. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

(Image via (Image via NOBUHIRO ASADA/Shutterstock.com)

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