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Go ahead, ignore my e-mail

September 9, 2010

I work in public affairs. Which basically means I harass people for a living. Brands, organizations, media outlets, in particular – even unsuspecting members of the American public. It’s my job to take the project, theme or message I’m promoting and get it out into the “target” audiences that have been selected.

Social media has been a real boon to people like me (at least those willing to embrace it), because it shifts that zero-sum game of harassment and focuses on building communities, reaching out to constituencies, and fostering a culture for sharing information – both the brand to the individual, and the individual back to the brand. It allows you opportunities to reach out with media outlets and bloggers but is more focused on the audience you really want to reach to – the member of the public who reads that blog or media outlet.

But all that social media love aside, I’m in a business that still demands a lot of e-mail. It also demands some phone calls, but increasingly, getting a reporter to answer his or her phone, or provide their phone number, is difficult. And I can’t quite blame them for going “unlisted.” If you knew flaks would be harassing you all of the time, would you let your phone number be at the end of every story?

In the course of my day-to-day life I’ll send several, sometimes dozens of e-mails to various individuals. And of those e-mails, I can often expect an abysmal response rate on my initial e-mail. These include people I know – friends, associates, colleagues. If I wasn’t so used to rejection given my chosen profession of targeted harassment, it would really start to affect my ego. The fact of the matter is, I think people are experiencing e-mail fatigue. And it’s not just because of the influx of spam or worthless e-mail – filtering systems have advanced significantly over the years. I think there are a number of individuals who feel “ruled” by inboxes, checking them continually to stay on top of that important e-mail from the boss or that long awaiting e-mail from the guy who you went out with last Tuesday. Anytime a technology has the upper-hand, it’s going to create inefficiency on the part of the user. So when my incredibly important e-mail arrives, outlining a great media opportunity, upcoming event, or personal anecdote from this morning’s commute, it’s just too easy to get lost in the shuffle.

I’m not saying I’m perfect in this area. Sometimes a message gets my way that I either ignore as junk mail, don’t respond to right away, or forget about. I know it can be a problem so I *try* to respond to any e-mail that demands a response within 48 hours. It just seems like a courtesy. There are exceptions to every rule but I never want someone’s ability to get their job done to be impacted by my inability to respond within a timely fashion.

Is e-mail taking over your life? Are you experiencing e-mail fatigue? Or would you just like me to stop e-mailing you already? Here are my basic tips for taking control of the inbox:

1. Establish a checking timeline. This is especially important for those who spend a work-day in front of a computer. Set times when you’ll check and respond to e-mails. Don’t feel like you have to respond to every e-mail right away, but schedule a time to respond to e-mail, and it won’t get out of control.

2. Clear out the clutter. When I worked for the Army I tried to clear my inbox every day. What I couldn’t clear, I flagged for a response at the appropriate time. I had approximately 100 different pst folders carefully outlining my work (sick, I know), and I moved e-mails from my inbox to those folders. It made sure I always had access to the information within those e-mails without them having to sit in front of me like a scrolling to-do list.

3. Be honest with those filling your inbox. Hate those forwards from grandpa? Sick of that reporter who sends you a new pitch every Tuesday? Tell them! I’m sure they’d rather know than see their e-mails ignored every day. We tend to think just deleting an e-mail is easier, but it isn’t. Clear out the clutter by letting people know, you’d just rather not hear from them, about that, any more. There is no sweeter e-mail than a reporter quickly, and politely, replying to my e-mail and saying, “thanks, but I’m just not interested in that issue.” Great! Then I know not to harass them about it anymore, and can move on to more productive things.

4. Use other tools. A lot of time, especially in the workplace, would be saved by taking e-mail conversations and moving them to a workplace wiki or shared space. Look at how innovative tools and replace an e-mail influx.

Those tips are pretty basic, but I hope they help. Like it or not, e-mail platforms may change, but we won’t be completely getting rid of it anytime soon. Act now to take control of your inbox (and reply to my e-mail already, will ya?)!

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