Personal productivity writers and thinkers harp on and on about email. And for good reason - our default behavior around email creates a lot of chaos. Dan Ariely has been thinking about this and the result was A Behavioral Economist Tries to Fix Email in The Atlantic earlier this month.
His two suggestions / ideas are pretty straightforward, and the ideas are backed up by some research. But I have a different reaction to the evidence - some of which is discussed later in the article.
- Not all email is created equal (but we treat it as such). Ariely did a survey and found that most email can wait. But how do we treat email and the notifications? We let all email interrupt us. Ariely's solution is to come up with a filtering tool that you have to train that only allows the important mail to hit the notifications - GMail has something like this already. My recommendation? Turn off email notifications. And decide when to review what has come in on your own terms.
- People aren't the best at making clear requests. A lot of email arrives without clearly stating why it was sent or what the sender expects you to do with it. I kind of like Ariely's suggestion to force people to fill in a web form with clear action requests. It's a sure way to limit the amount of email that comes through - it is a form of filter. But as he admits, it is rather obnoxious. I like the concept, though: we all need to be better at communicating. My suggestion here is to work with your colleagues and friends and decide what makes sense. Some people like using clear subject lines, or subject line acronyms to indicate expected action. And there are many guides on writing clear emails, including putting the request / action right up front, instead of burying it in the 3rd paragraph (Manager Tools discusses this in Get Your Email Read).
The article also discusses the idea of batching that is hinted at with the notifications topic: Individuals can control when they read mail, and a good practice is to only read email a few times a day, rather than every waking minute. But there is the other kind of batching - on the back end that only allows mail to be sent in batches. Individuals are less in control of this, but it is an interesting idea that gets at the human behavior of responding as soon as something arrives. If things can only arrive in batches, people may be less disturbed.
And this all gets at one of my primary maxims about email: To get less email (and be disturbed less), send less email. Talk to people in person or on the phone. It breaks the cycle.