Nix wasted time: Six steps to e-mail efficiency

Lauren Rikleen

The fantasy persists. We arrive at work, reflexively start our computers and find an automatic "Out-of-Office Assistant" universally displaying the following message across the country:

"The endless stream of e-mails – and the expectation that people are constantly available to read them – is leading to incalculable inefficiency and impairing the quality of life. Accordingly, if you would like to reach me, please call."

The fantasy invariably leads to the urgent recognition that we must gain control over this burgeoning behemoth. In just a few years, e-mail has evolved from a convenient way to communicate into a demanding, incessant tool that has blurred any remaining boundaries between the workday and personal time.

The problem of e-mail overload has become so intrusive that the Washington Post recently wrote about the growing trend of declaring "e-mail bankruptcy" in order to assert freedom from responding to old e-mails. But for the majority of us who cannot truly opt-out of the e-mail world, there is a need to develop some reasoned expectations about the effective and controlled use of e-mail and to create a semblance of order in the unregulated universe where e-mail resides.

It is time to become aggressive about decreasing the trillions (yes, trillions) of e-mails sent annually. With no regulating body, and nothing but our own self-restraint to guide us, perhaps it is time to develop consensus around how we should control – rather than be controlled by – e-mail. The following are six suggested rules to try to reclaim control over our computer-driven lives:

1) Stop the proliferation of illiteracy. We know how busy everyone is, but there is a reason why grammar and punctuation were invented; they make words easier to read, and create order out of written communications. Stop wasting other people's time trying to discern where one sentence ends and another begins. What worked for e. e. cummings' form of prose does not translate into today's electronic communications.

2) If you must forward non-essential e-mails, have the courtesy of deleting the endless stream of "Re: Fw: Fw:" that precede the text. It is a waste of the recipient's time to endlessly scroll down in search of an actual message. And the message is generally lost on Blackberry users who give up rather than wait for the screen to continually be prompted to search "More."

3) Do not "Reply All" unless you absolutely, positively must – and even then, check to be sure it is necessary. Very rarely do others need to see your reply to a sender's inquiry, especially when so many group e-mails are simply announcements, scheduling inquiries or a notice of some sort. Other people do not care that you have said "thank you" in response to the sender. Really.

4) Do not use e-mail to lessen your own burden by placing an unnecessary burden on someone else. Too frequently, e-mails are now used to escape tasks by leaving the follow-up burden to others. A prime example is the e-mails asking someone else to call you. In the old days – that is, two or three years ago – if you wanted to talk to someone on the phone, you would call them. Replacing telephone tag with e-mail tag is inefficient and annoying.

5) Speaking of unnecessary burdens, simplify efforts to schedule calls and meetings among multiple parties. The only thing more inefficient than the old way of scheduling meetings and conference calls via telephone is to use e-mail alone. A sender's e-mail listing preferred dates is generally followed by a steady stream of "Reply All" responses which invariably are not responsive to each other. Moreover, the burden is then placed on the recipient to continually click back and forth between dates proposed in the e-mail and one's calendar to check for availability. Recipients then often suggest new dates, with no offer to coordinate the numerous options. Even worse, however, is the request for a meeting that begins: "Please send me some available dates."

6) Stop incorporating e-mail into your family life. You are not doing your children any favor if you cannot look up from your hand-held device to watch their sporting events. They know your head is not lowered because you are praying, and they also see how unengaged you are in their activities while sitting in the stands. Being present requires your physical and mental presence.

The bottom line is that e-mail should be a tool that serves us, rather than the form of slavery it has become. As we all experience the proliferation of e-mails overtaking us, we need to gain control and create a more ordered cyber-universe that evolves from a common ground of e-mail etiquette.

We cannot start soon enough. So please, e-mail these recommendations to a friend. Just remove all the forwarding details.

About the author:

Lauren Stiller Rikleen is the author of “Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law”, a book about the institutional impediments to the retention and advancement of women in the legal profession. An attorney and mediator, Lauren is a senior partner with Bowditch & Dewey LLP, and executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women's Success.

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