E-mail has taken over our lives. When I was in California a couple of months ago, my sister was addicted to her crackBlackberry. One morning, she got in her car to drive to work and sat in her garage for at least 10 minutes checking her e-mail before her husband, also on the way to work, knocked on the car window and told her to wait until she got to the office. Her office is only about 15 minutes from her house.

Marv’s situation is no better. He spends at least two hours clearing e-mail every day when on vacation. And if he doesn’t, he invariably has to be at the office until late at night finishing up when we return. For example, he took last Friday and Saturday off (Saturday is a workday in Vietnam) to go to Nha Trang with us. Thinking that he needed a total break from work, he didn’t bring his laptop. He didn’t come home until 10 p.m. last night.

People are whining about e-mail all the time. On our internal group mailing list for b5media, people are always telling each other to “take it off list” because they’re overwhelmed by the number of e-mails they get. I don’t feel that way…yet.

I still feel excited when I turn on the computer in the morning and see the e-mail trickle into my e-mail client, Mozilla Thunderbird. My fingers tingle as they click on the various folders in my Yahoo e-mail account. What surprises await me? Who might have written me something special?

All too soon, the thrill will turn to dread. I already had one nightmare in which my e-mail demanded too much of me. Should I take care of this now or answer that e-mail first? How many tabs and windows can I open before my computer crashes?

Stever Robbins gives these tips for mastering e-mail overload in the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge newsletter:


How to write better e-mails:

  • Use a subject line to summarize, not describe. So instead of “Deadline discussion,” write “Recommend we ship product April 25th.”
  • Give your reader full context at the start of your message.
  • When you copy lots of people (a heinous practice that should be used sparingly), mark out why each person should care.
  • Use separate messages rather than bcc (blind carbon copy).
  • Make action requests clear.
  • Separate topics into separate e-mails…up to a point.
  • Combine separate points into one message (maybe even consider using the phone!).
  • Edit forwarded messages.
  • When scheduling a call or conference, include the topic in the invitation. It helps people prioritize and manage their calendar more effectively.
  • Make your e-mail one page or less.
  • Understand how people prefer to be reached, and how quickly they respond.

How to read and receive e-mail:

  • Check e-mail at defined times each day. (For me, that would be every minute….)
  • Use a paper “response list” to triage messages before you do any follow-up. Resist the temptation to respond immediately.
  • Charge people for sending you messages. (Huh? One CEO charges $5 for every e-mail she receives.)
  • Train people to be relevant. If you are constantly copied on things, begin replying to e-mails that aren’t relevant with the single word: “Relevant?” (Whoa, harsh.)
  • Answer briefly.
  • Send out delayed responses.
  • Ignore it. (This isn’t going to win you any friends!)

Great tips – some of which I already practice and others I will try. But I still consider e-mail my friend as are the people who write them (except for those evil spammers). And I’d hesitate in not responding as quickly or as thoroughly as I would like my friends to do for me.

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