How to “instantly” Reduce Your Email

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I recently took a weeklong vacation and, upon returning to work, was faced with 451 unread emails. As I sat there watching this behemoth of correspondence load up on my computer, I felt my vacation-relaxed muscles tightening until my neck disappeared and my shoulders touched my ears.

Despite the fact that this was uncomfortable and I somewhat resembled the Red Monster in the Bugs Bunny cartoon “A Hair-Raising Hare,” I was able to recognize that this daunting workload provided a great opportunity (although it did not feel like it at the time). It allowed me to take an elongated snapshot of the volume and types of emails that I deal with on a regular basis. Among other things, I found that an overwhelming number of these 451 emails were actually responses or “chains” of an original email, with a separate email from each person who wanted to contribute to the discussion (sometimes with as little as one word added).

As I struggled to separate my ears from my shoulders, I realized that these email chains are really not the most effective way to use email. Each response gets stored as an individual email and increases the amount of emails stored on your email server (and BlackBerry) exponentially. Talk about wasted time!
One of the “chains” in my inbox had no less than 38 replies (almost 10 per cent of my post-vacation stressor of 451 emails) sometimes with as little as “no” or “thanks” as the only contribution from someone in that chain.  

Some communications of this type must be in email as you may need to “have it in writing,” forward it on, or simply refer back to the correspondence if you wish to revisit the issue at a later time.  
For quick, lower-priority correspondence, consider instant messaging (IM) as a communication vehicle. It is efficient, easy on bandwidth, and saves your email inbox for only items that really require the benefits that email provides.  

{advertisement} IM would not have helped me with my post-vacation dilemma as I was out of connectivity range for most of the time. But had I encouraged my team to use the tool for quick, lower-priority correspondence, they could have dramatically decreased my email reading commitment upon my return. This would have allowed me more time for careful thought and consideration of the more important emails that would have been waiting.  
Most people are aware of what IM is, but for those who aren’t, it is a synchronous way to communicate using a quick and easy application that sends (generally) short messages between parties. If you have children, more than likely you are painfully aware of how IM works and amazed at how many different conversations with multiple people your kids can have at one time (all the while ignoring you).

For an outline of what IM is and how it works, visit: http://communication.howstuffworks.com/instant-messaging.htm

Now back to my point. If those few-word (or even one-word) conversations can be done on IM instead of email, you will have less clutter in your inbox and be able to deal with those minor issues right away. It is not uncommon for me to have 20 emails in my inbox all with the same subject line, with each email building on top of the other. IM can be used while you are on a conference call, webinar, etc., so your staff can get your opinion or decision right away without having to wait for you to read the backlog of the email chain and then respond.  

There are many IM applications available, with the most popular being Microsoft Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and Google Talk. Be sure if you are going to introduce any new technology that resides with a third party that  your IT resource staff evaluate it for security concerns. If, like me, you have MS Office as your standard (you know who you are: “PC dull” instead of “Apple cool”) you can implement MS Office Communicator, which has, among other things, an IM tool that can sync up to your Office inbox and shows if you are available, in a meeting, etc., allowing others to find a good time to contact you.

The BlackBerry now comes with at least one IM tool installed (BlackBerry Messenger) and depending on your provider, possibly more. You can often connect these IMs to your desktop application, making it appear seamless to your team when they are contacting you.  

Like everything else, IM is a tool, so it will take some administration time setting it up, and then expect a learning curve as you and your team get comfortable discovering ways it can best suit your needs. But if you can reduce your email volume, save costs of storage on an email server (especially if you have a vendor providing managed services who charges for storage space), and provide dynamic, quick answers to your team on the less important types of decisions, you will benefit in time savings. And if it turns out you are having an important conversation on IM, and you need a paper trail, fear not, IM applications allow you to save the IM conversation as a file.  

Now, if only I could get my massage therapist Brenda on my IM contact list. Then I could contact her instantly the next time I come back from vacation and my inbox grows faster and longer than the Sunday morning line-up at John’s Place.

Doug Caton is a Victoria IT manager.