Taming the Email Dragon: How to be a Responsible Emailer

Email makes us cogs in the machineEmail has revolutionised how we communicate!

However (and it’s a big bold “however”), in organisations email has become a depersonalising tyrant. While it has liberated communication it has also turned modern workers into the hi-tech equivalent of the industrial revolution’s mill workers. It’s made people “cog-ware”; just another part of a relentless machine as they serve email rather than it serving them.

Don’t get me wrong. Without email there is so much that we would not be able to do in this global village. In my working life based in the UK I have had the privilege of working with colleagues and customers from all over the world, from the USA and Canada to Brazil and Uruguay; Sweden to Portugal; France to Turkey, Morocco to Oman; Egypt to South Africa and Japan to New Zealand to name just a few. Without that marvellous thing called email it would have been impossible.

But there has to be a better way to use email, a way that shows more concern for people and that increases effectiveness; a responsible way to use email.

There is.

It will need a change in our outlook (sorry!) but it can be done. Email can be used in a way that liberates people, instead of driving them as if they are only the cogs of an impersonal machine. A way that improves efficiency rather than works against it.

The Email Cog-ware Machine

When email becomes a tyrant it is merciless; in organisations it can generate a virtually continuous demand for attention and instant response. It spawns huge volumes of “stuff” that you have to read, most of which is pointless and then it demands a response.

There is a myth that email is more efficient than other means of communication. Only if it is used responsibly is that true. If used unthinkingly, as a default mechanism expecting instant responses, it becomes that dragon that consumes, that diverts from the important to the supposedly urgent and it burns up our time.

For example, discussion style communications in email need several cycles to reach a conclusion as replies proliferate and then there is the copy list! How many people are on that? What might have been dealt with in a 5 minute phone call now begins to consume man hours when all the participants are included.

The individual tasks associated with an individual email may be trivial but their volume and the inability to control the flow, plus the constant diversions away from one’s main tasks, are fertile ground for negative stress. Negative stress drains away a person’s ability to perform and saps the capacity to care and destroys effectiveness. The tyrannical email master is out of control.

Email: The Time Thief

Have you considered how much time you spend handling emails?

Let’s assume that you get 50 emails a day and spend 4 minutes on average on each one. That would be 200 minutes per day i.e over 3 hours a day. In a week that is 15 hours; about 2 working days. In a working year (48 weeks say) that is around 100 days. That’s about 40% of your working life.

Now ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many of those emails were necessary?
  • How many of those emails needed my attention at all?
  • What didn’t I do when I was dealing with them?

So, what could you do with 100 extra working days a year?

Even if you get fewer emails, this little exercise highlights the impact that emails have on us and how much they divert us from doing our real work. Do the sums for yourself:

  • How many hours a week do you spend reading and writing emails?
  • How much of that time was unnecessary?

Responsible Emailing

There is a way to use email, a more responsible way, that is less demanding on you and your colleagues and causes less stress, less diversion and less wasted time. In Third Sector organisations, where money and resources are scarce, that has to be a good thing.

  • Emailers need to stop and think about what they are doing. Is email the best method of communication to use?
  • Did you know that there are at least 11 communications needs for which we regularly try to use email BUT email is only good for less than half of them.
  • Unwise use of the Copy List proliferates the impact, multiplying the wasted time.

If you feel that:

  • Your work day is dictated by email?
  • Too much of your time is spent reading and writing emails?
  • You have difficulty completing the tasks which are your responsibility because you are diverted by emails?
  • Are afraid of missing an important email?

In the mean time here are some quick tips to help you use email more responsibly.

The Three Most Important Email Questions

Before you originate or reply to an email don’t think “Email” instead think “communication”. Ask yourself the most crucial question, “What will be the best way to communicate in this situation?”

Can you deal with the matter more effectively by speaking with your correspondent?

Many strings of emails could be dealt with much more effectively by a phone call followed by an email, if necessary to document the outcome of the conversation.

If your correspondent is overseas you may need to email to set up a time to speak with them.

Who needs to be to be copied on the email?

Frequently people are added to the Cc list that really don’t need to be there. Unnecessary emails take up their time and may cause unnecessary replies. So, if you have to email, perhaps to pass on some data, then think carefully about who needs to be on the “Cc list”. If you cannot avoid copying the email then do only copy it to the essential people.

How much do I need to write?

Have you ever received an email, seen how long or complex it is and felt your energy just drain away? You find that you do not have the will to read to it. So, when you send an email, keep it as brief and as simple as possible.

Layout is important too. Use short paragraphs, it looks less intimidating and is easier to read quickly. Be sure to keep to one idea per paragraph. If you need a response ask specifically and if the email is addressed to more than one person, then be clear who needs to respond, else all the recipients will assume that someone else will complete the act

The result of wise answers to these questions will be fewer emails and conclusions or agreements will be reached more quickly and, less time will be wasted.


Take a look at your inbox work out how much time you spend working on emails. Then ask that first question: “Can you deal with the matter more effectively by speaking with your correspondent?” When the answer is “Yes!”, pick up the phone. If you make some agreement use a brief email to document it, and leave the Copy list blank if you can.

Image: Daniel Foster Flickr.com