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Avoiding E-mail stress

By August 9, 2007websites

People sometimes ask me how I’m able to keep up with the volume of email messages.  "You look so calm," they say.  "So what’s the secret?"  Other people say to me "hey, how come you didn’t respond to the email message I sent you the other day."   In case you hadn’t guessed, these two questions are closely related.

When I talk at CLE seminars about ‘Digital Workflow’ I offer lots of techniques for managing email.  I even mention some great add-on programs that help with productivity.  But, if there was one great power tip that I’d offer it’s this: a lot of email doesn’t require a response.  If you’re like most people (i.e. like me) it will take dedicated effort to figure out which emails don’t require a response.  But, once you learn to identify these emails you can quickly go through your inbox.

Obviously, there are some emails that you’ll have to respond to, or act upon.  But, you don’t want to start with those unless you have plenty of free time.  If you have plenty of free time you don’t need to read this post. Then again, you have lots of free time, so why not?

So as you go through your inbox you’re categorizing emails into two groups: (1) The ones you flag for follow up, and the ones you delete.  Of course deleting emails is more satisfying.  And we’re talking about lowering stress.  So this post is will be about deleting, not flagging.

What to delete?  Naturally any spam or routine notices that don’t need to be kept.  Okay, fine.  Now here’s the hard part: the emails from friends or acquaintances who ‘innocently seek your attention.’  I hate to say it, but not all of these emails require a response.  Let’s start with a minimally challenging example.

Let’s say you’re one of thirty people told about an upcoming social event. What to do?  If you can’t make it, then say so and be done with it.  But, if you aren’t sure, consider not responding until the last minute.  Remember there are going to be more emails later on to remind you to consider attending, so you might not need to respond now at all. If the person needs to have an idea of the head-count (usually the case when only a few people are invited) then it’s polite to respond.  Try to make a decision.  But, if you can’t, then just delete the email.  You’ll get another one soon to remind you about the event.  Right?

Okay, now let’s talk about the kind of emails that prompt people to say "why didn’t you respond to my email the other day?"  A fair number are emails that don’t specify what the person wants, and usually begin with the phrase "call me if you have a chance…" Geez, how can I simply delete these emails?  Isn’t a response of some sort required?  No, not really.

I don’t mind calling someone when I "have a chance," but unfortunately I don’t usually have a lot of free time to make phone calls –especially if I don’t know what the point of the call is going to be.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are obviously people in my life whose calls I return no matter what.  Most (but not all) of them are closely related to me.  And I have distant friends who will reach out and say they just want to catch up.  They’ll typically leave a nice voice mail message (or email), and say they "hope that I have the time to call them back."  I make a special effort to call them back if I can because they’ve told me (1) what they want, and (2) that they understand if I’m too busy to call back.  These friends at least understand the value of time.

A lot of people think that attention is valuable when it’s spread around as widely as possible.   I’m learning to avoid these people. They don’t understand the value of time, especially not my time.  And, as the old country western line goes: "if their phone don’t ring, they’ll know it’s me."

Lastly, what about the people who join five social networks a week and then invite you (along with everyone in their galactic-sized contact list) to be ‘their friend?’  Delete, delete, delete….


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