This is a hammer. It pounds nails. It’s very good at it.
Once upon a time I tried driving a screw into drywall with a hammer. I had the hammer close by, I didn’t want to go track down a screwdriver, so I ignored the threads and treated the screw like it was a nail. It went in surprisingly smoothly, all things considered. I was well-pleased that my laziness had paid off.
…for about five seconds. Then I discovered that the screw came back out even easier than it went in. I didn’t even need the hammer for that. In the end, my laziness just created more work. I had to track down a screwdriver and some drywall anchors (after learning what drywall anchors are) and finish the job the way I should have started it in the first place.
Email is a tool. It does some things well. If you misuse it, you’re going to cause more work for yourself.
Here are five tools you should be using instead of seeing every situation as a problem email can solve.
Ever send out a draft for review, only to actually receive feedback on it? With all the interleaved replies and comments, it quickly becomes unintelligible. You can’t follow all of the suggestions. New reviewers get lost in the maze of quoted text.
Instead, use Google Docs or iWork. These tools are designed to let multiple people create a document together. Changes are tracked properly and you can have a conversation about the document right there, without mixing comments in with the edits.
Email is really bad at sending out files, yet we do it all the time. Attachments are huge compared to the message we type. They’re slow to upload and download, they have to be scanned for viruses on the server, and they suck up the space in your account. They also get out of date quickly, creating a logistical nightmare in its own right.
Instead, use a file-sharing service Dropbox. If you share an entire folder with them, you can make changes to a file and the copy on their computer will be updated automatically. If you send them a link to a specific file, they can download the most up-to-date version at any time.
One of the more bizarre uses for email I’ve encountered is taking notes in a meeting, then sending them to yourself. The theory is that the meeting notes will be easier to find because they’re stored right next to all of your emails about the project, and you only have to use one app for everything.
Instead, take notes in a dedicated note-taking app like Evernote. You can share your notes with colleagues easily and they will get your latest changes automatically. Evernote has a couple other tricks up is sleeve that will help, like searching the text in images and making cross-references.
Email has a very formal feel to it. You have to write a clear subject line. You have to select who goes in the To, CC, and BCC fields. You feel like you have to write a couple of paragraphs to justify the rigamarole—both when you’re composing the original message or replying to someone else.
Instead, use a text-messaging app like iMessage or WhatsApp. Some messages are really informal and only require a quick question or answer. One sentence is all it takes. With the lower mental cost of sending a message, you may even get a reply faster. (We may call it “instant messaging”, but you shouldn’t assume you’ll get a reply instantaneously; even if they read your message right away, they may not be able to respond right away.)
Another reason to use iMessage: it’s encrypted end-to-end. (So is WhatsApp; other services, including Facebook Messenger and Google Allo, are starting to offer limited forms of encrypted messaging.) This makes iMessage much more secure than email. If you ever need to send sensitive information to someone (like credit card or Social Security numbers), use iMessage, not email. Full stop.
Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of talking face-to-face. Email is terrible for lengthy conversations. It takes too long and it’s often not clear when a decision has been reached.
Instead, walk over to their offices and talk to them in person. You can reach a decision in five minutes that would have taken five hours to reach over email. The conversation will be quicker, more expressive, and limited to the minimum number of people necessary to reach a decision. If distance is an issue, use FaceTime, Skype or a phone call.
Email is a tool. It solves some problems beautifully. Before reaching for email, make sure there isn’t a better solution available.