E-mail is about connection – between us and our colleagues, clients and suppliers. But in a frenzied work environment, mostly it’s about ourselves. The messages we send detail our needs. And the flow of e-mail received can drive us nuts if it doesn’t conform to our schedule. We want fast replies, but we want them at the perfect time, so we don’t feel pressured.
Maybe it’s time to think more about the other person in the exchange.
“It’s time to flip the script on how we handle e-mail,” Adaira Landry, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and Resa Lewiss, a professor at Thomas Jefferson University, write in Harvard Business Review.
“Focus on protecting other people’s inboxes rather than your own. The inversion may sound counterintuitive. But it’s effective – and when everyone does it, it leads to what we call a ‘compassionate e-mail culture,’ where teams work together to reduce the overall e-mail traffic. Shift the focus: Prioritize each other.”
One unusual recommendation is to use the BCC line in e-mails more often, as that can spare people from endless reply-all threads. Most of us view BCC as a method for covertly sharing an e-mail with interested parties. The two academics discourage that as unprofessional, disrespectful and unfair, a threat to trust on a team. But because the BCC folks don’t get any replies, they suggest using it – with clarity on who the main and secondary participants are delineated in the e-mail. It’s ideal for e-mails where not everyone needs to know the details in any follow-up, such as scheduling a meeting for only some people. If required, you can summarize responses to the large group via BCC in a single, one-time follow-up e-mail.
They also urge you to be conscientious about timing. Even in today’s remote world, business hours are still effectively 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Try to ensure the timing of your e-mail matches the recipients’ work hours. “Off-hour correspondence unfairly distracts the recipient, who might reflexively feel the need to reply in the moment,” they note. And that means if the other party is on vacation, delay the e-mail until their return – you have a calendar and e-mail delivery options or plug-ins to help with that compassionate move.
- Curate and focus your recipient list before you hit send. Does everyone really need to be on the thread?
- Write succinctly and in an organized fashion. The content of every message should be clear and specific. Too often it benefits us but not the recipient if we write quickly or very tersely.
- Keep in mind that many messages can be deferred until the next casual conversation or routine scheduled meeting.
- Be compassionate toward yourself as well. Productivity consultant Chris Bailey advises you to give up on achieving the once-exalted state of Inbox Zero – no e-mails in that key folder. After all, even if you manage to deal with every message, it’s only a matter of time before a new one will come in.
The thirst for an empty inbox can lead you to worry about e-mail all day. Instead, you want to get to the point where you are dedicating zero mental space toward thinking about e-mail.
A step in that direction will come by tracking your e-mail pattern. Keep a count of how often in a day or an afternoon you checked for new messages. “Then, reflect on why it was that you checked. Was it because you were expecting an urgent reply from a colleague, or did you need an excuse to procrastinate?” he says. Maybe procrastination signals you are at an impasse in your work and need a short break to recharge.
He also recommends e-mail sprints. At the top of the hour – or whenever you have a chance – set a timer for 10 minutes and go through as many e-mails as you can. But compassionately, of course.
- Another use for a timer: Set it for one minute and think of what you are grateful for, trying for one item with each breath. It’s a lovely way to calm down in high-stress situations, says Olivia Bowser, founder of Liberate.
- “Never give up” is terrible advice, warns Ozol Varol, who calls himself a professional quitter. Mr. Varol left the world of rocket science, where he was working on a NASA Mars mission, for law school, and after practising for a number of years, switched to academia. Quit things you don’t enjoy.
- Brew some tea or coffee for your virtual meetings. Research shows holding a warm cup of liquid elicits a warm feeling toward others, a transference of the physical temperature to your emotions, the Shepa Learning Company notes in its weekly networking tip.
- When faced with a decision, consider what will happen if you do nothing, advises consultant Ali Polin. Also, which option has the most positive energy for you? And if you take an option off the table, do you feel relieved or stressed?
- New research suggests that extended silences during negotiations leads to better results. “When put on the spot to respond to a tricky question or comment, negotiators often feel as though they must reply immediately so as not to appear weak or disrupt the flow of the negotiation,” MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Jared Curhan reports. “However, our research suggests that pausing silently can be a simple yet very effective tool to help negotiators shift from fixed-pie thinking to a more reflective state of mind. This, in turn, leads to the recognition of golden opportunities to expand the proverbial pie and create value for both sides.”
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