High resolution: Shedding pounds of e-communication in the New Year

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As I watched the ball drop in Times Square this year (from the comfort of my living room), I thought about what resolutions I would make for 2010. Then I thought some more about the ones I would actually try to keep (two very different lists).

Among the list of resolutions I was committed to was that I would do a better job of managing my “e-world”: my e-mails, texts, social networking, etc.

I don’t know about you, but my e-mail inbox is starting to look less like an inbox and more like the Internal Revenue Code (but not nearly as entertaining). If you’re like me, you receive dozens—maybe hundreds—of e-mails a day. Sorting through them is almost a full-time job.

Try this: Go to Yahoo (or another ISP site) and in the search bar, try to type in “time wasted on e-mail” but stop at “time wasted on” (don’t complete the search phrase). What happens? Odds are the site will complete the phrase for you, suggesting that you are looking for “time wasted on e-mail.” No joke. In other words, the most common completion of the phrase “time wasted on…” is “e-mail.”

It’s no wonder that we all feel we waste too much time on e-mails. According to a recent Microsoft security report, more than 97% of all e-mails sent over the Net are unwanted.

So how do we manage all this without going crazy? Here’s what the experts say:

1) Make use of filtering tools. There are several tools on Outlook that will allow you to send worthless…I mean, less urgent…e-mails directly to your Junk Mail folder without you ever seeing them in your Inbox.

2) Resist immediate responses. You’d be surprised how often a person can resolve their own issue, given a few minutes to think about it. Moreover, if you always answer every e-mail the instant it comes across your inbox, you train those communicating with you to expect an instant response to every message in the future. Bad idea. Instead, check your e-mails at specific times during the day (or night) and respond accordingly (some experts even suggest turning your e-mail functionality off until you’re ready to check them, rather than allowing them to “pop up” as they come in).

3) Keep your inbox empty. Create folders based on categories and file each e-mail as you’re checking your inbox. As a first step, I use Barbara Hemphill’s “F.A.T.” method for sorting my Inbox (actually created for physical inboxes—you remember those, don’t you?), from her book Taming the Paper Tiger at Work. Every piece of mail (or in this case, e-mail) goes into one of three folders: a “to be Filed” folder (for items you just have to save for reference), an “Action” folder, or a “Trash” (i.e., deleted) folder. You don’t have to do anything about them at this point; this is just a form of triage, a basic survival tactic.

4) Delete those cute FW: e-mails that make some amazing claim or purport to share some divine wisdom. Most of the time they’re not true, or at best not verified. And they almost never have any real value (unless you count the virus that comes along with them as an “added bonus”). Be especially suspect of anything that suggests dire consequences should you fail to forward the message to at least 10 other people. Believe me, whatever the claim is, it will not happen (wait a minute, what’s that tingling feeling in my left arm …?).

5) When in doubt, throw it out. Don’t keep any e-mail that contains information you can retrieve elsewhere. Odds are, the sender copied 70 other people in your organization anyway (most of whom will save it). And don’t forget, the deleted file folder on most e-mail programs stays around for at least 90 days. Give it a try.

6) Use downtime. Most people decry the use of BlackBerrys and their ilk as infringing on our personal lives. I tend to go the other way. If I can delete 10 junk e-mails while I’m waiting in line at McDonald’s, that frees up more time during the workday to focus on real work. (It also takes my mind off of the fact that I’m (sigh) waiting in line at McDonald’s).

In his great article entitled Not Being “That Guy” on Lifehack.org (which is worth looking at just for the photo), Rhodes College assistant professor Art Carden suggests that you can also help manage your incoming e-mail volume by managing what you send out. So under the category of “If you’re not part of the solution…” here are a few suggestions for doing just that:

• Don’t “reply to all” when you really only need to reply to the individual who sent the e-mail. I know it’s really tempting to show everyone else on the distribution list that you replied first and to try to impress them with your answer. But if they don’t need to see your response, you shouldn’t copy them.
• Don’t insist on the last word. Every e-mail doesn’t need a response (e.g., John sends an e-mail: Can you handle this for me? Cathy replies: Sure. John replies to her reply: Great. Thanks.  Cathy replies to John’s reply to her reply: No problem. John replies to Cathy’s reply to his reply to her reply…you get the picture).
• Observe the “Three E-mail Rule.” That is, if you find yourself writing more than three e-mails on the same e-mail “string,” it’s time to—egad!—pick up the phone or walk down the hall (if the person is in your office). It’s amazing how quickly an issue can be resolved by actually talking (not texting, e-mailing or tweeting).

My handyman dad used to tell me that good repair work depended on two things: 1) choosing the right tool (which he of course always had), and 2) using it properly. At the end of the day, electronic communication’s the same way. It can be a great tool—but if used improperly or indiscriminately, it can cause as many problems as it solves.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes comments or questions via e-mail at kwiedenkeller@amctheatres.com.