I’ve got to admit it. I’m hooked on e-mail. Its so easy to use, convenient (saves all that running to the mail box), cheap to operate and fast (given that I find instant gratification a bit slow, e-mail measures up quite well, considering). That I don’t really understand how the messages manage to leave my machine and pop up in someone else’s, is neither here nor there. Its a terrific tool to have. I now know however, from my own and others’ experience of e-mail, there are some cunning traps to avoid………if you can.

Distracting visual or sound indicators – you know the ones, those helpful ‘pings’ that sound or the flying flag that erupts in the middle of your screen telling you whenever a new message arrives. If you know its highly likely you’re going to sit at your desk and fret, with 75% of your mind wondering who has just sent you an e-mail, then you are already distracted. Solutions? If you know you are EE-D (easily electronically distracted) turn the sound and flags off and establish a routine time in your working day to check and respond to your e-mails, in the same way you set aside time to brief your PA, make telephone calls, visit clients or staff and answer paper correspondence.

Instant-response syndrome – when you feel you simply must make a response to messages the moment or the day you receive them. It can be really tempting, thinking that each message will only take a moment to reply to and you may as well do it now instead of later…. which can mean you leave work of a higher priority…..break your concentration span……..and then you find, to your complete surprise, that those few moments have taken a few hours and your morning has completely gone. Solutions? Be discerning, selective and prioritise. See what messages require a response that day and those that can be answered within the week or later. Adjust your ‘safely delivered message’ response to include a statement saying you will get back to them, where appropriate, within # number of days. Remember that prior to e-mail, the turnaround time of post mail could be 5-7 days or more and the business world kept on spinning….. so give yourself the permission to work smarter, not necessarily faster. Consider also that e-mail is meant to be a communications tool, not a slavish dominator.

Numerical overwhelm – when the system stores every inwards/outwards e-mail and tells you, least you forget, you have 2400 e-mails in your inwards mail, 1500 in your outwards box and in the one day you have been away from your desk, 55 new messages have arrived. It can be very, very daunting and generate a feeling of never getting on top of your work. Solutions? If the stored message tally flattens your spirit and makes your heart sink, adjust the system so you don’t see it the moment you go into it. File historical messages into appropriate files and get them off the screen. Delete messages you don’t need to keep. Ask colleagues who work closeby yet send you e-mails instead of talking to you, to talk to you personally – explain you are aiming to eliminate e-mail clutter. Ask colleagues or friends who send you jokes, chain letters and inconsequential correspondence that drives you crazy, to be taken off their mailing list. Set aside a portion of each day to check and respond to your e-correspondence.

Reduced human interaction – when you find your preferred mode of contact with clients or colleagues is electronic, despite the fact your job requires a predominance of face to face contact. This can be a slippery slope, especially for the more introverted souls who may prefer to be left alone to do their work. Solutions? Keep in mind that relationships are the cornerstone of good business practice ……and personal contact – the person, the face, the voice, is memorable. Remember too that in the main, people prefer to deal with people, not machines. So, if you find your clients or colleagues expressing surprise and shock at seeing you (is that really you?), it may be time for you to become more obvious in the workplace.

First published in NZBusiness February 2000

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