All I Want For Christmas Is Less Email

When it comes to managing the email onslaught, we have met the enemy, and he is us. Needed now: Willpower.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

December 11, 2012

4 Min Read

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Windows: Goofs And Gaffes

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If you told your colleagues that, as a holiday gift, you could guarantee them 30% less email, would they welcome the extra time back in their professional and personal lives? Of course they would. But the solution comes with the same requirement for avoiding that 15-pound holiday weight gain: willpower.

Spam is no longer the enemy; we've all but licked that one. When it comes to managing the email onslaught, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Let's consider the simple example of communications around the potluck holiday party for an office staff of 20, where someone coordinates who is bringing what. In the old days, the party organizer would post a signup sheet in a break area. Today, the organizer shoots out an email to all 20 people, and then everyone replies to all. The one communication in the break room has now turned into 20-plus communications.

Even if folks are disciplined enough to not reply to all, there still will be, "Awesome, thanks for doing that!" types of emails, or "Please, Wanda, bring your wonderful fruit salad!" Some of these emails, inevitably, will be directed to the whole list. This case on a larger scale creates a funnel effect. The more indirect reports you have, especially in today's open, collaborative workplaces where there isn't as much chain of command as there used to be, the more "friendly fire" email you'll get. Our most highly compensated employees are those whose time we waste the most.

[ Read How To Keep Email From Driving You Crazy . ]

IT professionals, once serial under-communicators, might be overcompensating. Does everyone in the organization really need to know about the change that's going to affect only one floor or one system? And miming Twitter's "your Tweet was retweeted!" email notification, some enterprise apps now let you know, in email, about something that might or might not require your attention. If you have a social platform such as Jive, prepare for your email volume to double as every frivolous comment on the platform gets spoon fed to you in email alerts.

You can't blame the enterprise app people. IT tries to get people to regularly check their invoice approvals. They don't, but they do check email. So, hello email!

There's also a sense among end users that if they poke a document or a status update into a non-email system -- whether it's a project management system or a contract management system -- it's not good enough. They want everyone to know what their edits to the contract were. So they push them to email.

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Three main things are going on here. One, people are generating ever-more noise emails. Two, even the apps that we thought loved us are generating time-wasting emails. Three, we don't have the intestinal fortitude or executive mandate to wean ourselves off email.

The solutions all boil down to willpower.

First, and perhaps hardest, we must stop writing so many darned emails and stop ccing people who don't need to be copied. For many things, a two-minute phone conversation or personal chat will save five or more email exchanges. I'm not saying don't write emails or don't cc people, but as the yoga people would say, at least be mindful and purposeful about it.

Second, we must help fellow employees find comfort in using all of those other tools that we've provided. For instance, people need to know that project conversations should be had in the project management system, not in email. This reconditioning requires both training and an executive mandate.

Third, we must take the time to learn and use the management tools built into our email clients. For example, I have a rule in my email software that redirects any "notification" type of email to a separate folder. I also have rules that separate my email into classifications of "those who report to me," "those who I report to," and everyone else. IT organizations should consider reaching out to executives and their assistants with pointers or training.

Willpower doesn't yield returns in the short run. When we avoid eating just one more Christmas cookie, and then another one, the pounds don't evaporate. But the choices we make on a continual and disciplined basis have big aggregate consequences in the long run.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at

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