My working life has traversed the pre-email era through to our modern email and social media dominated approaches to communications. How about you?
And if you have lived life both with and without email in your life, have you ever pondered whether it was all worth it? Did we really achieve all that we thought we would with this wow new technology?
Looking back, I can see both positives and negatives of the whole email experience and I know there are probably very few people in a company environment these days who would say that they don’t really receive a lot of email. For most of us, it feels like the number one work-life evil! As someone once said “when did email become my job?”.
And so there are plenty of articles out there advising us all how to get email under control and the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach of David Allen has, for instance, become my go-to approach for taming the beast.
But something occurred to me one bright, sunny morning, as I sat at home sending off a pile of emails to work colleagues … had I ever considered whether or not I was part of the problem? Up to then I had always felt like the victim of a never ending flow of messages and requests for action. And so I started to change my perspective, insights can do that!
So How Do You Use Your Credit Card?
You know the feeling, you’re at the mall and have spotted a new DVD that you would like and you sit on the edge of another impulse purchase. But you don’t initially swipe the credit card. Instead, you have a quick conversation with yourself about whether to buy it and, a few seconds or minutes later, manage to come up with a convincing enough argument and so you buy it.
And it was really easy right? In fact fairly painless. And in fact, in the next shop, as you view something else that you didn’t come to the mall for, which is twice the price of the DVD, it suddenly also appears in your shopping basket and accompanies you out of the store, destined for its own special place in your wardrobe. And you feel quite pleased with yourself for the great purchases you found.
But, had we had to go to the bank teller, fill in a form and personally request the money, we would most likely have left the mall without either the DVD or those great new trousers. It would have been too much hassle to take the time to get the cash and besides, actually handing over those crisp bank notes and counting them out in front of the shop assistant would have made us truly realise how much money we were spending. In other words, we would have had to properly think it through.
With a credit card though it’s easy, you don’t really have to think too much and, because it’s so quick, the thought can come and go before we really have time to process the fact that we maybe don’t really have the cash sitting on hand to spend.
And so it is with emails, don’t you think? At its heart, it’s a form of communication that we engage in (mostly) with our work colleagues.
And as a communication system, what it’s allowed us to do is to engage in a lot of it, really quickly, without really having to deal with the consequences of our actions there and then. Just like the credit card.
With email we don’t have to think about how overloaded the person is that we are sending the email to. Or for that credit card, exactly what our balance is. Because we aren’t right in front of them, seeing the look of horror on their faces when we request yet another document from them, it’s become really easy to start requesting things left, right and centre. And for them to request things from us. And because it doesn’t take time to request something big, we get accustomed to just asking for more and more, piling it on, without seeing the direct consequences in their lives.
But if we went and saw the person in their office or we took the time to call them, we would quickly establish a rapport, an understanding that this person is about to disappear out of town on a hectic business trip for the rest of the week and with their evening supper appointments they simply won’t have time to respond to all our requests. And so we need to make another plan. And in that moment of need, often a solution comes to mind that will get you your result, just without them having to spend half a day answering it for you. And wow, some actual communication took place between two people!
Before email, people used to talk a heck of a lot more, understand each other’s position in life and know to what degree they could request things from one another. But since email arrived, we have all started expecting more and more from each other and we have started layering tasks on people after others have just inadvertently layered a few of their own on them. And so stress builds and we have to find ways like GTD to cope with the enormous influx of new inputs into our lives every day.
It’s On The Loose … to a large degree, email is the beast from the lab that escaped and is now firmly out of the control of its creator. Yet, we ourselves are at the driving wheel of this particular beast and can make decisions about how we use it. It is, after all, simply a tool, a means to an end. It’s us that have misused it and turned it into the burdensome beast of modern work communication.
So, whenever you next find yourself needing to ask for something from someone else, think for a moment about whether the ease with which you can swipe your credit card to buy something new is not perhaps a workable analogy for what you’re about to do on email. We have come to believe that because it’s easy to do and that everyone else does it, that it is some how the right thing to do, the right way to handle the majority of our communications. And, in fact, we could go as far as to say that the work places we spend our time in have based their entire mode of operating culture on this ease.
Yet, perhaps it’s at the very root of so much of the mis-communication and overload that perpetuates … in fact, that we help perpetuate … in our organisations? Just because it’s the way its done, doesn’t make it right and if we never start new habits and try new approaches to the issue we will have to face a future where we continue to experience the same-old same-old overload and we will be wallowing about in the email pit for many a day to come.
And to extend the banking analogy a little further … are you perhaps about to send that next email without really thinking about your bank balance with that person? Are you perhaps not already a bit overdrawn in your account with them? Do you not perhaps need to make a few deposits into their account before you start asking for more from them? All too often we drive ourselves into overdraft with our colleagues and we just keep on withdrawing.
And deposits don’t have to be big things quite often. They can be as simple as a visit up the corridor to their office or a phone call to say hi, discuss how they’re doing and to make sure that what we’re asking is within their account limits. Or having that long over-due catch-up discussion with your colleague so you can both orient your perspectives of one another’s lives and better understand each other’s priorities. Email simply allows us to avoid those conversations and to keep on demanding demanding demanding.
But was it ever like that before email came along? Or did we just allow it to pervasively take over our communications, creating a slew of downsides that we have never really come to terms with or learned to manage?
But if we’re prepared to take a moment to step back before we send that next email, we may just come to a different decision about how to communicate this next request.
And we can start to reduce our contribution to the overload effect that email has in the lives of the people around us.
And perhaps, just perhaps, we can start using email to support our communications and relationships, instead of using it to constantly up the pressure?
And, in an act of reciprocity, others might just start doing the same for us.
I’m off to the bank …
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P.S. For a simple prompt on changing habits a little at a time, check last week’s blog post Sitting Comfortably? That’s A Pity!