Five ways to subdue e-mail before it smothers you

The average executive spends two hours a day on e-mail. That adds up to roughly one day per week.

We probably waste a lot of time every day on phone calls and meetings, too. The difference is that the demands on your time don’t grow automatically as they do with e-mail.

E-mail has become a pandemic social disease. The more you get, the more you send. And the more you send, the more you get.

And I’m not just talking about e-mail viruses. The longer you use it, the more of it comes at you. The quantity of e-mail you get grows and never stops growing.

In the 1990s, e-mail was all good. At first, you had to be on the same office system or consumer service to exchange e-mail. But then the Internet made it possible to send messages from AOL to CompuServe, and from CompuServe to MCI. E-mail was wonderful. You could search it. You could send attachments and links.

Slowly, gradually, e-mail became something else. Every communications medium has its own costs and benefits. But with e-mail, the costs grow over time as the benefits shrink.

What’s wrong with e-mail? In a nutshell, the medium is perfectly designed for information overload. Both message size and quantity are essentially unlimited. Unfortunately, electronic communication is like a gas: It expands to fill its container.

It’s way too easy to copy everyone and “Reply All.” It’s also easy for companies to automate the sending of e-mail. There are almost no barriers to an unlimited number of people sending you an unlimited quantity of random stuff. But your time and attention are truly limited.

Because e-mails tend to be so many and so long, it’s not friendly for reading on a cell phone. So, as we become more mobile, e-mail becomes less compatible with how we live and work.

E-mail has always suffered from another flaw: It facilitates miscommunication. When you’re typing out words, you’re thinking one thing, but the receiver can perceive your intent as something else. You’re being funny. They perceive hostile. The reason is that humans are designed to communicate with words, facial expressions, body language and hand gestures all together. When you send only cold, black-and-white words, the other person can easily read into your message inaccurate intent or emotional content.

The experience of using e-mail has become like walking through a bad, big-city neighborhood at night. This person wants to rip you off; that person wants to offer you drugs or some shady sexual service; yet another is trying to infect you with a virus. You’re literally dealing with organized crime syndicates every single day. Who needs that?

Everything — from the most important business communication to love notes from your spouse to software that will damage your computer to bank fraud — is all dumped into the same in-box in random order. In order to find an important message from your boss, you have to wade through raw sewage.

Meanwhile, the most precious resource you have is your own attention. At the very least, e-mail is a massive, constant distraction. And because you really do live in an attention economy, all that objectionable e-mail you get every day is taking money away from you and your company.

While the signal-to-noise ratio of e-mail has declined, other forms of communication have emerged and improved. Now we have free video messaging, chat, social-network messaging and Twitter.

Those are nice, but that e-mail just keeps coming.

It’s time for you to reboot your entire communication strategy and start over. The goal is to transition to better forms of communication, and stop using e-mail altogether — at least stop using it the way you have been doing. Here’s how:

1. Set up a Twitter account.

You can use your Twitter account as a way for people you don’t know to contact you.

2. Set up a “public” e-mail account as a data repository.

Use an online e-mail service. I prefer Gmail because it has better spam filtering and better search than other services.

Use the public address for whenever you set up an account with any service and it requires an e-mail address, and give it out as your one e-mail address. In most cases, you can just use your existing e-mail account for this.

Set up an autoreply message informing e-mail senders that you do not check this e-mail. If they would like to contact you, they should call you on the phone, message you on Facebook or send you a direct message on Twitter. But here’s the trick: Give them only your Twitter name, not your phone number or Facebook profile address. (People you know should already have your phone number or Facebook profile. If they don’t, they can ask on Twitter.)

(If you want to explain what you’re doing, just link to this article in your autoreply and let me explain it for you.)

The purpose of all this is to set up a barrier or a filter. If people want your attention, they’ll have to earn it. Only real, motivated people will be able to contact you, not automated message servers, not Nigerian scammers. When they do, they’re forced by the system to keep it short. If you don’t want to hear from them again, you can block them on Twitter with one click.

If you have to send long-winded e-mails for whatever reason, you can use this public account to do so. If others have to send long-winded e-mails to you, they can use this address, too. But they’ll have to inform you on Twitter, and you can decide whether it’s worth the trouble.

Whenever you need to access the stuff that flows into this e-mail address, you use Gmail’s search feature to find it. It works just like Google itself.

3. Set up a “secret” e-mail account for content.

This second account is for content, namely e-mail newsletters. Use whatever service you want for this. Move all your subscriptions to this account. Now, whenever you want to read your newsletters, you can do so without spam or all the other clutter and junk that normally accompany e-mail.

4. Set up a Facebook account.

I recommend doing all messaging with people you actually know well (friends, family and co-workers) on Facebook because people need your permission in advance to send you messages.

5. Set up a Skype account and get a webcam.

When you get in the habit of using Skype video calls instead of certain types of e-mail, you’ll skip all the needless miscommunication that happens with e-mail. Let’s say you need to discuss a personnel issue with a subordinate working in another city, or discuss a personal matter with a relative. Do yourself a favor and do videoconferencing. It will be faster, and you’ll communicate without misunderstandings.

The idea here is to take all that stuff you’re getting via e-mail and separate it into an appropriate place. Each type of communication is directed into a vastly more effective process based on who’s sending it.

Random information is autofiled into a searchable system in case you need it. Newsletter content is all put in one place so you can read it with concentration. Strangers are forced to contact you on Twitter in a short message. Friends, family and co-workers that you approve send you messages on Facebook. And video Skype is for any conversation prone to miscommunication.

Once you’ve set this up, you’ve eliminated e-mail from your life, and with it, the spam, scams, junk, long-winded messages and other massively time-wasting garbage. Meanwhile, you’re forcing anyone who wants to consume your most precious of resources — your time and attention — to get permission in advance and keep it short. And it’s all mobile-friendly, too.

If killing e-mail is proscribed by company policy, you’ll have to modify these instructions. A typical scenario is that an employee is required to give the corporate e-mail address to business contacts and to reply to e-mail on the company system. But you can still redirect all Web site sign-up traffic, e-mail newsletters and other stuff to the “public” and “private” Gmail accounts. You can urge colleagues or contacts to call you, or use chat. In other words, you can minimize, rather than kill, your company e-mail. And, of course, you can kill your personal e-mail.

E-mail is a disease. By taking strong action to cure yourself, you’ll radically reduce the quantity of messaging in your life, while improving its quality.

Let me know how this system has improved your life. Contact me on Twitter:

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at [email protected], follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.


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