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Email Etiquette – Three ways to be with your email

I can remember way back being the first person in my workplace to get signed up to email and it felt fabulously modern and up-to-date. Now of course, email is part of most peoples’ lives and we would be lost without it. It doesn’t hurt though to remember what is was like when we needed to take the trouble to write a letter—all the business of having sufficient supplies of stamps and envelopes at hand and the routine of the daily collection and distribution of mail. Then there was the expense—each letter cost something to send and so the idea of including a long list of people to cc to was not one that was taken on lightly. There was also an etiquette to letter writing—I think I was taught about it in school. I certainly don’t remember being taught any email etiquette and yet now we can reach a long list of people at the touch of a key. It’s no wonder that email engages so much of our attention but at what cost?

What email brings along with it

A kind of seduction

Having a constant stream of email certainly gives us the feeling of being busy and in demand. There’s a kind of bravado we hear when people speak about their 400+ emails per day. However, we could ask ourselves if this is a healthy way of communicating and whether it actually achieves what it promises. I have yet to meet the person who can give considered replies to that many emails in a day, as well as doing the rest of their job.

The speed and immediacy of the messages flowing into our in-box can have a slightly addictive quality as we plough through them looking for the ones that we hope will make a difference.

Soren Gordhamer in his book, Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected writes that one of the reasons we are so attached to our email is that we are constantly on the look out for some good news, a lucky break in our working day. We want something to lift us up and make us feel good and we look to email as a source of possibility flowing constantly into our lives.

The Harvard Business Review recently carried an article on what it called email addiction in which it stated the findings of a survey done for the Huffington Post. Here are two of the statistics:

  • Out of 1200 respondents, some 60% said they spend less than two waking hours a day completely disconnected from email.
  • 20% spend less than half an hour disconnected.

Our email has embedded itself deeply into our lives.

The illusion of multitasking

It’s not just our email either. We are linked into any number of communication tools and apps. As we sit at our computers we are subject to alerts and notifications providing us with information that we feel is essential to keeping in touch and getting things done. We can pride ourselves on being able to switch our attention between several different demands at once but perhaps we also need to question the quality of our attention divided into so many different directions. Think about trying to answer an email on your smart phone while waiting for your train to work, or juggling your shopping in the supermarket. It may feel like using every moment fully but is it worth the risk of making an error of judgement because your attention is not focused? 

Our brain is not comfortable with shifting back and forth between several different tasks. It has the effect of splitting our attention and tends to make us less productive rather than more. The quality of attention we give to each task is so reduced that it becomes counter-productive. The risk of replying to an email in this way is quite high. With our attention so divided we are likely to miss things and respond inappropriately.

It’s the same thing if we are trying to write a report while we keep an eye on our incoming email. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock states that:

  • on average office distractions take up about 2.1 hours per day
  • employees tend to spend about 11 minutes on a task before being distracted
  • people switch activities every 3 minutes
  • after an interruption it takes people 25 minutes to return to their original task

What email does not have

An instinctive way to connect

Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us impact the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us. So when we communicate face-to-face we are able to form an instant connection and enhance this by how we use our voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.

Add to that the increasing body of study into mirror neurons, which enable us to instinctively feel another person’s thoughts, emotions and intentions and we have a clear picture of the volume and intensity of communication that flows between people when they meet.

None of this is available to us on email. We may conduct long and important business relations with people that we rarely—or perhaps never—see.

The benefit of the doubt

When we are under pressure to answer a large number of emails we naturally try to be as succinct and efficient as possible. We cut down on the niceties and go straight for the main point. Unfortunately, for the recipient who cannot see us and maybe does not even know us well, the effect can be quite negative. Email that we intend to be concise and practical can seem to be unfeeling, or even rude. Add to this the brain’s negativity bias, which makes it much easier for us to interpret something as hostile, even when its not. Designed to help us remember dangerous circumstances so we could avoid them in the future in order to survive, this feature easily converts a neutral but business-like message into an unfriendly communication. Having not given our correspondent the benefit of the doubt, we are likely to pass the irritation on in subsequent emails we send throughout the day.

Three ways to be with your email

1. Be practical

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and persistence of our email traffic but there are a number of simple things we can do that will help. It’s a question of identifying them and putting them in place as our regular habit.

Here’s a few ideas for how to be practical with your email: 

  • Have regular times of day for dealing with email. This will avoid the nightmare of your email spilling over your entire day and making it hard to accomplish anything else.
  • Try not to answer emails on your journey to work but use the time to prepare for the day. When you are in your workplace you can give better attention to the email you are writing.
  • Deal with the emails already in your inbox before you start on the incoming messages of the day. This helps you to keep track and prevents an important email slipping through the cracks.
  • Sort out your inbox regularly. It is encouraging to see the volume decrease in your inbox and helps you to keep track.
  • Turn off your notifications when you are working on other things. This decreases anxiety when you see emails surging into your inbox.
  • Check that sending an email is the best means of communication for the message you want to send. Would a phone call work better? This helps to ensure good communication.
  • Check your subject line—is it identifying the topic clearly? The person receiving the email is as busy as you. Helping them assess how to deal with your message will make it more likely it is answered quickly.
  • Think carefully about who you copy in—do all these people need to see your message, or will it complicate things?

It helps to keep the communication channels uncluttered.

2. Be mindful

We have already looked at how often someone gets distracted from the task in hand while at work and how long it can take them to get back on track. Distraction is not just something that happens to us at work. In 2010, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his associate, Matthew Killingsworth conducted a study in which they developed a smart phone app to measure peoples’ happiness. During the day people were sent a series of questions asking them what they were doing and how they were feeling. The results showed that for 46.9% of their waking hours people were thinking about something other than what they were doing and they were not feeling happy. Think about that for a moment—it is almost half of your life!

Meditation is the best way to work with distraction. Here is a very simple mindfulness meditation exercise you could try.

A simple mindfulness meditation exercise 

  • Sit comfortably
  • Connect with your breathing
    • stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you
    • moment by moment by moment
    • breath by breath by breath
    • notice any changes in your breathing
  • Notice when your attention is not on your breathing
    • check where has it gone
    • dissolve the distraction
    • bring your attention back to your breath
    • begin again as if for the first time

Doing an exercise like this regularly will help you be less distracted with your email. Mindfulness means being present. Meditation means developing awareness. Both of these are useful skills with email.

Here’s a few ways to be mindful with your email:

  • Keep in touch with yourself by maintaining awareness of your body on your chair, your chair at your desk and so on.
  • Try to avoid sending email while you are on automatic pilot.
  • Don’t zone out at the computer.
  • Take regular short breaks to breathe deeply and relax your shoulders.
  • Re-read your messages before sending them—if they are tricky emails, re-read them twice.
  • When you receive a difficult email take time to separate the message from your reactions—make sure that you can get your reaction in proportion.
  • Keep a photo on your desk that helps bring you back when you are distracted.

3. Be kind

We have already discussed how email does not come with an instinctive way to connect. On top of that, the brain’s negativity bias leads us to interpret business-like emails as hostile. We all know that it is all too easy to have a misunderstanding—or worse—over email. Once we are upset ourselves—or have caused upset to someone else, the ripple effect spreads and spreads as we all pass on our irritation and stress to the other people we interact with. Kindness is not something we always think of in dealing with our email and yet engaging with kindness while we deal with our inbox will help the quality of our communication—and even help to reduce our own stress levels. 

Here’s a few ways to be kind with your email:

  • Try to stay connected with the person you are writing to—visualize them in your mind’s eye.
  • Realize that the person you are writing to is just like you—they want things to go well at work and yet they have all kinds of hassles to deal with.
  • Put yourself in their shoes—how would you feel about receiving the email that you are sending?
  • Don’t just dash off a quick reply in order to get it done—it can end up taking up more time.
  • Never send an email when you are upset, disappointed or angry—chances are you are not seeing things clearly.
  • If you are unsure of an email, put it in your draft box and re-read it the next morning.
  • Alternatively—read a tricky email out loud to yourself to check the tone.

I would love to hear from you how you manage your email. You can comment in the box below. If you would like to know more about learning to meditate you can contact me to arrange an online session

If you would like to know more about learning to meditate you can contact me to arrange an online session.

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You might be interested in this free, short email course on using mindfulness to work with email traffic.

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Maureen Cooper
 

Some of the BLOGS here are written by friends of mine but most of them are from me. Each time I write a blog I am telling a story about the kind of things that happen to us on a daily basis. Usually we have set ways of coping with these events but they don’t always work and even if they do, they might not achieve the long-term result we want. I try to suggest some new approaches to the stuff that comes up for us and whenever possible, include a short practice to help us remember. Let me know what you think - it is always good to hear from you.

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