Sunday, 13 January 2013

not mailing but drowning

Email takes out a large slice of my day.  On my first serious day back at work after the Christmas break, I spent all morning on the backed up emails (despite having been monitoring and keeping up to some degree); at lunchtime I had one more email in my inbox than I'd had first thing: I wasn't even keeping up!

Someone at work has suggested that we all adopt the Email Charter.  It's got much excellent advice, and a few things I disagree with, which I'll explain here.

1. Respect Recipients' Time. This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.
This is the fundamental rule of all writing. Don't just dash something off, expecting your reader to pick through the verbiage to extract your meaning.  This is particularly true if your writing is to be read by more than one person: the total reading time is multiplied by the number of readers.  Hence the important role of reviewers and editors in published writing: to reduce the amount of time people waste reading nonsense.  Be your own editor: proofread and edit down your emails. Don't fall back on Pascal's excuse: "I am sorry for the length of my letter, but I had not the time to write a short one."

2. Short or Slow is not Rude.  Let's mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Given the email load we're all facing, it's OK if replies take a while coming and if they don't give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, so please don't take it personally. We just want our lives back! 
Way back in the day, before email was ubiquitous, before personal computers were common, we used to get our business letters typed up by secretaries.  I heard back then (I'm talking mid 1980s here) via the grapevine that one of the secretaries thought that my business letters were "short, to the point of rudeness".  I always forget to put in all that initial polite handshaking part, and just cut to the chase.  So email is perfect for me!

Slow, though?  Well, that depends on what you mean by "slow".  More than 10 minutes, that's not slow.  More than 24 hours -- I'm beginning to worry that your spam filter ate my email, and might think about sending it again.  A simple "ack" can help allay this worry.

3. Celebrate Clarity. Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. If the email has to be longer than five sentences, make sure the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts and colors.
This confuses two issues: the subject line, and the body, of the email. The body part is really covered by point 1. Subject lines should be a clear "title" about the topic of the email. There are a few points I think are important about subject lines.
  1. Your reader doesn't have the same context that you do, so the subject line that's best for you isn't necessarily the best for them. Let's say you are a project manager where all your emails are currently about project BettaWidget.  You email financial support with a query.  Subject "Financial query" is great for you, but pretty useless for them, as most of their email is about financial queries!  Subject "BettaWidget" is more informative to them, but won't mean much to you when you get the reply.  So, try "BettaWidget financial query".  It's essentially the union of your tag set and your recipient's tag set. 
  2. Good subject lines mean one topic per email : the one related to the subject line.  Two topics leads to lack of clarity, and the danger that one topic will get overlooked.  In the past, it also meant irritation of not being able to file it in the right place. But now we have tags rather than hierarchical folders, this isn't so pressing.
  3. Change the topic, change the subject line!  If your conversation has drifted off onto something else, change the subject line to reflect this.  This links to point 6 below. 

4. Quash Open-Ended Questions. It is asking a lot to send someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by "Thoughts?". Even well-intended-but-open questions like "How can I help?" may not be that helpful. Email generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. "Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!"
Maybe a further "d) other (please specify)" is needed to allow for the creative solution that you are secretly hoping for!

5. Slash Surplus cc's.  cc's are like mating bunnies. For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. Not to be done lightly! When there are multiple recipients, please don't default to 'Reply All'. Maybe you only need to cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.
It can be difficult to know who needs to see an email. Sometimes there's a few people who need to see it and do something, and a few who need it for information only.  The first should be recipients, the second should be the "cc"s.  But it can be hard to distinguish these categories: Gmail doesn't do this unless you look at "details", for example.  It might be worth having a couple of lines of intro:
  1. Hi X, Y, Z (for action)
  2. cc A, B, C (fyi)
I haven't tried this (yet), but it might help address the problem.  If you have people in the list who are neither for action nor for info, why are they there?

The "to all" message that starts out "To all of you who haven't done X" is the most problematic.  I confess that I have been guilty of this on occasion, usually when pressed for time, but I wince when I do it.  I hate receiving these, as I'm left thinking "have I forgotten to do X?", and have to waste even more time checking that, yes, I have done X.  Don't send to "all" with the disclaimer; send it just to those who haven't done X.   It may take less extra time than you think---you will be saved reading all those aggrieved emails from people telling you that actually, they have done X---and it saves the time of everyone who has done X (not least because they won't be sending said aggrieved emails!).

6. Tighten the Thread. Some emails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it's usually right to include the thread being responded to. But it's rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails. Before sending, cut what's not relevant. Or consider making a phone call instead. 
This isn't so much of a problem -- we can read as far through the historical provenance as we need to.  It saves deleting something that's actually needed.  And the academic in me feels bad at removing references: it's almost verging on plagiarism.

"Or make a phone call instead."  No.  No, no, no.  Absolutely not. In case I wasn't clear about this: no, do not make a phone call instead.  The glorious, wonderful thing about emails is that the recipient is in control of when, and whether, to respond. If I don't respond to your email, it's because:
  1. I'm busy in a meeting. Some of my colleagues are bemused that I don't answer my phone when I'm in a meeting with them.  When I do answer, the person calling often asks if I am free to talk: yes, I am, if I wasn't, I wouldn't have answered the phone.
  2. I'm busy doing some real work, and don't want to be disturbed.  It takes 15-20 minutes to get into a concentration "flow" needed for technical work; it takes a second to be broken out of it.  My phone is on such a soft ring I can ignore it in flow.
  3. I need to do something, find something out, contact someone else, read a document, even just think a bit, before I can give you a meaningful response, so it will take some time.
  4. I'm ignoring you for now.
  5. (unlikely) It's lodged in my spam filter.
The phone is ideal for a conversation that needs some back and forth discussion.  An example happened last week.  A colleague emailed to say that their group had been having a planning discussion, and she needed to tell me about it, and it was easier to talk through than write down.  Using email, we set up a time to talk.  The call lasted 50 minutes (it would indeed have been hard to write down!)  If you want to talk to me on the phone, email me and ask me to call you (tell me when, so that I don't disturb you in turn).

7. Attack Attachments.  Don't use graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if there's something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment when it could have been included in the body of the email. 
Absolutely!  Central admin in particular seems to delight in circulating emails that say "please read the enclosed", which results in you spending 10-15 seconds reading that instruction, scrolling down to the attachment, downloading it, and opening it, only to be confronted with a few lines of text that could easily have been pasted into the email.  10-15 seconds, multiplied by every recipient, multiplied by every such email, amounts to a lot of wasted effort.  Especially when the attachment has been forgotten in the first place!  (Maybe those helpful little "did you mean to send an attachment?" popups, which sometimes appear when you forget a promised attachment, should be complemented with "do you really need to send this attachment?", when you don't!)

8. Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR.  If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message). This saves the recipient having to actually open the message. Ending a note with "No need to respond" or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity. Many acronyms confuse as much as help, but these two are golden and deserve wide adoption.
EOM isn't even needed if you have an email client like that shows the beginning of the body text, or not, if there isn't any.  OTOH, NNTR seems to add extra acronym burden when there's already the well-known and perfects acceptable FYI.

9. Cut Contentless Responses. You don't need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying "Thanks for your note. I'm in." does not need you to reply "Great." That just cost someone another 30 seconds.
This is another slightly tricky one.  Again, sometimes there's a need for an "ack", or at least the recipient feels the need to say "thanks", whatever.  Maybe an extra "RSVP regrets" or some explicit opt out scheme is needed in such cases?

10. Disconnect! If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we'd all get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can't go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an 'auto-response' that references this charter. And don't forget to smell the roses.

tl;dr: let's follow the Email Charter (except that phone call business, of course!) and make our, and our recipients', inboxes hold only short, content-full, attachment-less, relevant subject-lined, pertinent emails!

This may be a short term problem, though.  Apparently, teens don't use email. The next generation will need a Text Charter instead.

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