The email tool

Email has been around for 30+ years now. And, despite its ubiquity, it still polarizes. Email has also been declared dead many a time in these 21 years but still manages to stick on. If you read Cal Newport’s excellent blog, you will likely see regular posts telling you – it’s okay to be bad at email. There are tons of productivity blogs who’ve written about inbox zero, the 2 minute rule, etc., etc. So, which is the truth?

Here’s how I think of email –

1. Email is a near-ubiquitous communication tool. It is important to think of it as a communication tool and not a getting-things-done tool or productivity tool. Email just helps get messages across.

2. This leads us to the question – where is email most useful? Email is most useful in any work that requires connection because, well, it helps connect people. “Duh” – you might say. Forgive me for stating the obvious.

3. So, for researchers who need to spend more time reading and digesting complex scientific paper, Cal is absolutely right. Email isn’t a necessity.

4. However, if you work in the “connection” economy, I believe it is essential you learn how to use the tool. If you lead a team of really busy people or a team of people at different locations (increasingly the norm), for instance, being bad at email is really not an option. A CEO who doesn’t do email well can repeatedly stall an entire organization.

5. Did we communicate well before email? Sure, we did. We survived just fine without computers too. While we could argue about whether our quality of lives have improved, the fact is – things have changed. As things stand now, email is the norm for a tool of communication. Figure out a way to deal with it.

6. Notice, my message isn’t to respond to every email. Just figure out a way to deal with it – set expectations on how you respond and help folks who work with you understand what to expect. This may become easier as you become more busy/sought after/important as people understand you have a lot on your plate. But, I’d argue that it probably never gets much easier.

7. You can definitely choose to view email as a necessary evil. But, given many of us spent at least 30 minutes to an hour on our inbox in our working lives, I’d imagine that view isn’t doing us much good. Every once in a while, I get a completely serendipitous email from someone I haven’t heard from in a long time and I feel really thankful for the awesomeness that is email. If you aren’t getting such emails, be that someone and send someone you are thinking about a nice personal note..

8. Also, email can be incredibly helpful in making connections with people you have never met. I’ve been fortunate to meet some really cool people after some persistent emailing. So, if you haven’t gotten around to using the email tool for that, well, it is about time..

Email is a tool we’re going to have live with. I’d recommend the following – Take some time really think about how you plan to work with it, learn to use it to your advantage (it is definitely a skill) and love it. Love is a verb, after all.