Many — if not most — people complain about the overwhelming number of emails they receive. It might be called email hell. In today’s world of multi-channel communications, the issue has worsened considerably and is likely to deteriorate even more. There are multiple challenges that we face at work (and that also can have an incidence in our private lives). In 2007, I chronicled how many messages I received in a week across all platforms and devices (read here). It reads more like a letter written on parchment. The volume of messages I receive in a week has ballooned since — without figuring in the volume of posts and tweets that swarm in the social media stream.
So, what’s causing this email hell?
People now expect a response in a fraction of the time that used to be considered normal. The issue is compounded because of the opportunity for customers to communicate directly to brands/companies via social media platforms. Whereas it used to be possible to channel communications through one pipeline, the lack of willingness of customers to obey is matched only by the latent frustration caused by creating too many hoops. Whether it is attention span, the exigency of responding to a Facebook post or the average lifespan of a tweet, everything is operating in some kind of warp speed.
To add to the woes of email hell is the proliferation of the number of communication platforms. As soon as you sign up for a new platform, especially if you use a ‘handy’ tool such as Facebook Connect, you will find all sorts of other people and the risk is that they will start to send you messages there. On voice and messaging services such as Viber, Whatsapp or Skype, you can receive vocal and text messages. Your phone has voicemail and SMS. In Facebook you can find wall posts, comments and direct messages as well as invitations. A few friends have liked and commneted on your checkins on Foursquare. Your latest photo on Instagram has gained some favor. With your kids, you might find yourself connecting on Snapchat. The list goes on. And, if that were not enough, you have to manage your personal email account(s) separately from your work account due to work procedures.
The possible straw on a camel’s back is the multiplication of devices. It’s not uncommon to have a professional and a personal phone, accompanied by a tablet and a laptop, which in turn might be open alongside a desktop computer (which still exist!). With services such as Skype, Facetime (Facebook) or iMessages (on Apple), you can find your messages popping up on all the devices at the same time. And for some rearguard actions, you might also have a landline phone and a fax machine in the vicinity.
Reactivity versus proactivity
It’s small wonder that many people feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of incoming communications. Some have adopted draconian methods such as disconnecting from as many platforms as possible, or just announcing automatically that it is no longer possible to answer all messages. I wrote here about the mystery of the unanswered messages. People struggle to stay up with the incoming messages. It thus makes sense that many/most people have difficulties being proactive, thinking strategically, much less taking the time to reflect, pause for air or talk to a stranger. Many people fall prey to being the victim, in constant reaction mode.
3 keys to reduce email hell
Rather than subscribing to draconian methods, I would advise a strategy that is progressive. In any event, there is no miracle cure. Philosophically, the key to a vibrant organization is a strong and open communication line.
- LEARN. Take the time to learn better the functionalities of your email service of choice. We tend only to use a fraction of the options available. There are a host of tools and tricks within the majority of the more robust email clients that, when mastered, are phenomenal at helping sort out the priority mails, filing and organizing the inboxes to avoid congestion, etc. There are great tutorials out there, according to your service (gmail, outlook…).
- CENTRALIZE. As much as possible, I recommend having communications consolidated into one place. In other words, I make sure that I have my different email addresses come into a central inbox and I create alerts and reminders from the various social media channels that flush through into my email inbox. This may sound counter-intuitive (because it increases the emails), but it immensely helps to regoup the communications and, especially in terms of keeping track, to create a real hub. The service I like to use to collect my social media communications is Nutshellmail.
- CONSISTENCY. In terms of “training” your contacts, it is advisable to stick to as few as possible channels for your outgoing messages. However, when it comes to engaging with people (especially those who are vital for you), it is important to connect with them in their prefered channel. Over time, I have made my gmail email my go-to address and use Twitter as my prefered social media. You will need to find your prefered channels according to your eco-system and contacts.
Like everyone else, I have my challenges. Yet, I generally stay on top of my messages because I have prioritized who and what is important for me. This is reflected in who among my contacts are my favorites, VIP or have priority status.
What are your keys to success in keeping up with your emails and communications? Please do share!