Book Club

E-mail Should Not Be Our Default Communication Tool

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PhilSimonBookE-mail is the equivalent of a necessary evil or, if you’re not so kind, a cockroach. All attempts to kill it have to this point failed. Yet, there is a way for us to minimize its inimical effects. In Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It, though, I stop short of providing absolutes for one very simple reason: All communication is contextual. It always has been. (I’ll come back to this in a bit.) On a personal level, I abide by a simple yet powerful three-e-mail rule. After three, we talk. Beyond that, don’t write a treatise. tl;dir is alive and well. Recognize that some (in fact, many) conversations are best held in person, not in Outlook or Gmail. I try to minimize the number of e-mails I send every day. Quality trumps quantity. When it comes to communication, there are always different rules. One size never fits all. Let’s say that you’re trying to develop a potential relationship with a new partner, superior, or client. A greater degree of formality is probably wise, especially in comparison to a colleague whom you’ve known for fifteen years.

Red herrings

This begs the question: What are some signs that you’re addicted to e-mail? Let’s start with the quantity of the e-mails sent. We all know people who send too many. As I write in the book, I used to be one of them. In the book, I detail my own Pulp Fiction-like moment of clarity around e-mail. I remember the very day that someone called me out in 2007 for confusing the team. Some people just send rubbish, but the larger question to me is why something has to be communicated via e-mail in the first place. Over the past two decades, e-mail has become the de facto tool for internal communication. It’s one of the killer apps of the Internet era. In an era of Slack, Verse, Atlassian, and other truly collaborative tools, however, that need not be the case. Let’s say that four colleagues need to set up a call. I can send a clear message about my availability, but so what? Even if an e-mail is clearly written, e-mail is clearly not the best tool for this particular job. That goes double for task management, project management, and general collaboration.

Marshall McLuhan was right.

I’m not anti-e-mail; I’m anti-inefficiency.

Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” He’s absolutely right. I’m not anti-e-mail; I’m anti-inefficiency. Productivity usually suffers on incessant e-mail chains—and a great deal of research backs this up. For instance, Gloria Mark is an informatics professor at the University of California. She has discovered that the more time people spend focused on email, the less happy and productive they are. And make no mistake: this is a big problem. We actually receive 120 to 150 e-mails per day. On average, we check our inboxes an astonishing 70 times per day—a rate that is increasing at 15 percent per year. This clearly can’t continue.

Simon Says: Embrace new collaboration tools.

Brass tacks: E-mail was never designed to be a collaboration tool, yet many professionals foolishly use it as a Swiss Army knife. You can’t search your inbox as effectively as you can search 25 trillion web pages. It usually takes us less than one second on Google to get what we want. Our inboxes contain 20,000 messages. At least a few times per day, we can’t find something in our inbox. Think about that the next time you hit “Reply All.”

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