Emails are the enemy of ‘done’

By Raeleen  |  20 August 2015

Tune out, switch off and focus

Emails are the biggest time waster we see in our business today. Sure, they’re a fantastic communication tool, but we’re abusing them to the point that they’re losing their effectiveness. So a piece of technology that is supposed to help us is actually costing us time and efficiency.

An arse-covering exercise

People use emails to cover their arses. They want their side of the story on the record. And then, if you’re on the receiving end of that, you feel the need to match it so your arse is covered too. It’s so easy to get caught in this cycle. But the problem is you get caught in a back-and-forth; soon you’ve got a trail of 50 messages, and nobody can remember who said what or when. And nobody’s arse is really covered because there is so much waffle being sent, you can’t find the pertinent points when you need them anyway.

It also steers all parties away from what you’re trying to do, which is to work together. Almost every time, if you just got on the phone and had a conversation, everything would be resolved. Then, if you need to have it in writing, put the outcomes of your conversation into some bullet points and email it out. Done!

Confused directions

The other issue we often encounter is that people send us 20 emails, all with different tasks they want us to do. I understand this happens because people want to send an idea off before they forget it, but we then have to collate all the emails into one list and say, “Is this what you mean?” It’s confusing and laborious.

The solution to that, of course, is to jot everything down and have one person provide a clear list of instructions.

Responsiveness issues

In many people’s minds, email is instant. They think if they send an email to us, we’re going to be sitting at our desks and reading it as soon as it pops into our inboxes, and then you’re going to action it straight away. But as a business we can’t be that responsive.

To run efficiently, we need to collate our tasks together, and check our emails in set blocks of time (check out my post on the benefits of batching). Ideally, this would be once in the morning when we’re planning our tasks for the day, but practically, I think checking emails a maximum of once every two hours is entirely doable. Any more than that is counterproductive. It actually stops us getting our work done.

If you’re sitting at your computer with your emails open, you can get stuck in a cycle of responding to emails all the time, and you’re not actually getting any work done – you’re not managing a project, you’re not having a team meeting, you’re not working with the production team, you’re not researching, you’re not doing content, you’re really just managing emails.

We close our emails down while we’re working on other tasks, and we switch off our notifications. They just serve as a distraction.

Clear actions, please

Another enemy of efficiency is the long prosaic email, with its requests buried throughout the text. What you want to see there are clear, actionable points. Just bullet your list and ask for what you want. I’m happy to read the detail as well, but please make the actions you require clear and easy to see.

Conversational manners

One mistake we can be guilty of here is that we can waffle on because we’re trying to be conversationally polite. But the problem with doing this is that your true message is at risk of being lost in the chitchat.

The fact is: we’re all busy, so you’re really doing everyone a favour if you just say, “This is the issue, and this is what I want done about it.”

Add to that the different language most of us use when we write our ideas down rather than saying them out loud, and you’ve got a lot of nuances that are either being missed or, alternatively, agonised over unnecessarily.

It’s this analysis that occurs over emails – partly because of the missed nuances and partly because of all the butt-covering that’s going on – that somehow makes it seem okay to drag out decisions and pass the buck. It’s like a game of hot potato, where the sender thinks, “It’s off my desk now; it’s someone else’s responsibility.”

The solution

We are committing to tidying up our act when it comes to emails, and gently encouraging our clients to think about the way they communicate to work with us effectively. We will:

  1. Ensure our emails are succinct, and that they have a point
  2. If anything is urgent, pick up the phone
  3. If we see an email from a client that is not clear or concise, pick up the phone
  4. Where multiple actions are required, make a list and send as one email.

Sometimes picking up the phone can be tough, and email can particularly be a crutch if an issue is particularly sensitive or challenging. A bit of distance can make us feel safer, but it’s a trap and you end up on an infinite loop. Being on the front foot and tackling issues head on is always the best course of action.

Written by Raeleen  |  20 August 2015

Hi, I'm Raels, I’m a working mum juggling two beautiful boys and a demanding business. I have been a digital marketing specialist and graphic designer for 26 years. And I’ve run my own digital agency Mettro for 14. I’m thrilled to share with you my straight up business talk.