I used to hate e-mail, and sometimes I still do. In this, I'm pretty sure that I am not alone. For all the wonders of super-fast and reliable communication that e-mail offers, it can also become such an enormous distraction. What if I wanted to really appreciate e-mail? How would I have to go about it, to make e-mail great?
“We should have a meeting!”
“Cool, I’m in”
“I can’t Thursday. Friday?”
“This Thursday or next?”
“What about next week?”
Every email user I have met has experienced The Endless Thread. It probably began by someone somewhere requesting a meeting. But nobody found a time to meet and somehow everyone forgot why the meeting was supposed to happen in the first place, and it gets rescheduled endlessly and eventually we all give up and the thread dies unresolved.
Of course you can’t control how others use email, but what can you do about your own inbox? Two initial observations:
- The more emails you send that require an answer, the more emails you will receive. Send less = receive less. The relationship is roughly 1:1.
- The real opportunity is in avoiding emails turning into endless threads.
The best way to avoid endless threads is to use thoughtful anticipation. You can do this when you initiate a thread but you can also use it to hijack someone else’s thread if it looks like it is spiraling out of control and going endless.
I think the main reason why the thread becomes endless is that there is a lack of thoughtfulness and attention. Instead of pausing to reflect on why the meeting is important, who should be there and crafting a thoughtful invitation to each participant, someone just sends out a brief request, because we have been told that short emails are better than long ones. However, being short misses the point. In my personal experience these endless threads can get to 60 emails between five people. Let’s conservatively estimate 1 minute per email, that brings us to five hours of work time where nothing is accomplished. That’s a lot of time to waste because we go for short. I know people in corporate America who will laugh at me because I haven’t seen anything.
Imagine this alternative to the example above:
Since this is an urgent matter, I suggest we meet next Wednesday, 10am. I have checked the calendar and it seems that everyone is available then.
If you have something else then, would it be possible to move it? If you can’t make the meeting let me know and I will talk to you individually before and make sure that your views are represented.
If you want to send more thoughtful e-mails, try following these six steps the next time you want to send out an e-mail:
- Don’t open your email. If it is already open then close it. Now! What we need is space for thoughtfulness and that is hard if we get interrupted all the time.
- In a notebook or journal (or the Paper app), reflect briefly on what it is that you want to accomplish in the end. Maybe you want agreement on a product roadmap or to close the deal you have been working on for a while. This reflection takes time and it may feel counterintuitive that spending extra time on not “getting work done” can be a good idea. However, remember that if you spend a full 15 minutes on reflection and successfully avoid an average endless thread you have saved yourself 45 minutes and an additional four hours for your team.
- What needs to happen to get what you want? Maybe you need the team to come together, or a phone call with the potential client.
- What are you going to ask of the recipient? Are you asking them to simply show up at a certain time and place? Do they need to respond to confirm? If some participants are crucial for the meeting, you can schedule the time with them first and let non-crucial participants join if they can. Do you need to provide a reason for why the client should get on the phone with you? What’s a good reason?
- Provide simple options for responding. If you are scheduling a time you may suggest multiple times and dates and ask everyone to reply directly to you with all the times that work for them.
- When you know what you want you can write your email. You can type it up as usual, however, you can also write it by hand on paper or the Paper app. It’s easy to learn and if done well it is incredibly effective — it shows that you care in a way that can’t be faked.
Mathias Vestergaard helps leaders, creatives and entrepreneurs think clearly and tackle tough challenges. He loves bread and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and baby son.
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