In common with many people today I conduct an increasing percentage of my business remotely, coming into contact with different groups of people only when the event occurs that has been the subject of that entire email correspondence.
The title of these events is normally “How To Create A Sustained Performance Improvement” and during the introduction I explore some of the problems that are currently blocking performance our performance at work.
Almost invariably the answer to the opening question “What prevents you from performing at work?” is “E-mail”, and the answer is normally sung out as one voice.
The groups all agree on the problem and it is very difficult sometimes to bring them back to the purpose of the current event when they become embroiled in an orgy of horror stories about the way that E-mail is ruining their lives.
One day I took a step back and decided that if this was such an overwhelming concern it deserved the time it would take to examine its nature to see if we could effect a cure.
The first group that I listened to were all from the same department in the same organisation but working in different locations.
Their stated problem was that nobody wanted to be seen to get in the way of an idea so every E-mail that was generated was copied to everyone in the department by everybody else and that every body felt that they had to be seen to be making a contribution so they had to make a comment on every email they received.
Individuals would routinely receive the same E-mail many times and each time felt that they had to comment on the comments that had been made since their last comment.
I asked the group how they would solve the problem and one wag suggested that each individual should be made to pay for every email that they forwarded on the basis that this would focus their minds and get rid of what was unnecessary.
The group could not work out how to make that happen practically but they explored the idea of personal responsibility and realised that in order to achieve the required focus payment wasn’t really necessary, but that accountability was.
They left that day with a plan to place before their IT manager, to log every E-mail that was forwarded internally.
This log was converted into a bar chart and a copy placed on each notice board so that every individual could see exactly the amount that they were personally contributing to the problem, or the solution.
A very simple strategy to solve what I had thought was a universal problem. Except that this was only one facet of nature of the E-mail monster.
I listened to other groups complain in the same way about the affect that emails were having on their ability to work and noticed a different problem and that was SPAM.
When given the space to pursue this E-mail conversation it soon became apparent that there was another phenomenon that affected a different group of users.
They were not being deluged with E-mail forwarded by their colleagues but were having their ability to do any real work compromised by the number of unsolicited emails they received from external sources.
This was a different problem that clearly required a different solution.
While listening to these different conversations it soon became apparent that the longer the conversations were allowed to go unchecked the more they started to resemble conversations overheard in a playground about who had the biggest brother or who had found the most conkers on the way back from school the previous night.
Each story told was preceded by a casual estimate of the number of E-mails the individual received each day that always carefully outbid the previous story teller before embarking on the tale of what a monumental task it was to delete all of these E-mails.
I slowly came to realise that the number of E-mail and the size of the problem was being worn as a badge by the complainant, being used in a backhanded way to complain about how popular/important they were.
Having made this discovery it was easy to go to the next logical step which was to realise that in order to feel more important individuals were actually encouraging their own bombardment by signing up for regular mailings on the premise that they may be useful and then in fact deleting them as soon as they arrived.
In this way individuals were building for themselves a comfortable feeling of their own importance that was reinforced every day by their in-tray which contained hundreds of E-mails, laboriously deleted every time, but never unsubscribed.
This is my challenge, and it will hurt.
Count the E-mails in your inbox in the morning.
Count the number that you delete without a thought.
What if instead of the delete button you clicked on unsubscribe?
It will hurt to even think of this because you are ripping away your safety blanket that gives you daily reassurance that people keep sending you emails because you are important or popular.
We can reclaim our day from the E-mail monster that we have created for ourselves by hitting unsubscribe.
It is our choice?
This morning I received fourty four E-mails in my in tray (I have exaggerated the number to make me sound important) and without thinking I deleted thirty nine of them.
Realising what I had done I went to the deleted mails file where I was able to unsubscribe from five of them and put twelve into the junk mail file.
The first one or two “unsubscribes” felt awful because these were people whose mail I would no longer be receiving, I had cut myself off, but as I went on it started to feel so good, the feeling that these E-mail monsters would no longer be in charge of my day.
I got so carried away that I continued through my deleted mail file for another 30 minutes unsubscribing and junking most of what I found.
This was probably one of the most effective half hours of my year.