Email – savior or bane of our existence?

Do you dread coming back from vacation to find the buckets of work email waiting for you?  Do you secretly use your iPhone/Blackberry/etc. while on vacation just to “clean out your email a bit”.  Do you think all of this email is making us smarter or able to work better?  And…what did people do 20 years ago when email was almost non-existant in the workplace?  People still did stuff, the economy still grew, right?  I mean, we built rockets to fly people to the moon before we had laptops, web browsers, Mathematica, and email!

I don’t know the answers to most of these questions…but I do know that the good use email is wonderful and a great time saver, and the poor use of email is a time waster, a morale killer, and sometimes bad for your career.  People do things like blindly reply-all over and over again filling up everyone’s mail box, CC their boss just in case, say angry things they would never say in person, and more.  So how do we define the difference between good and bad email.

Characteristics of bad work email:

1. Bad emails tend to have a lot of people on the TO or CC line.  Unless its a group announcement of some kind, this usually signals the sender doesn’t know who the relevant people are and is just blasting it out.  Equivalent to standing in the lobby and yelling out your message.

2. Bad emails tend to have information instead of knowledge.   As my friend from high school put it, information is simply data without a clear understanding of its significance, while knowledge is the useful application of accumulated data.

3. Bad emails tend to have no clear indication on whether action is expected from the recipient.

Characteristics of good work email:

1. Opposite of the above three items.

The key challenge is to deal with the daily deluge of information from all sources: email, Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, TV, websites, Digg, and so on. Sifting through all this raw data, analyzing it, discovering patterns, ignoring the noise, and not spending too much time acting on irrelevant information is critical to the survival of any information worker or professional.  Improving our use of email is one way to reduce the mental clutter of our daily work existence and hopefully moving us closer to spending time generating knowledge instead of just more information.