Engineering versus email, revisited: email is not a thing

02Anthony Haynes writes: The previous few posts have sought to provide practical solutions to the problem of the demands that email management makes on our time — time that we’d prefer to dedicate to engineering projects.

Here I provide an additional solution.

How many times have you heard colleagues say something along the lines of ‘I need to go and do my email’ or ‘I spent most of the morning doing my email’?

You might even have said something similar yourself, with a sigh or a look of dismay.

It’s easy to see this encroachment on your time as simply a product of the volume of email. But framing it in that way is unhelpful: one feels overcome by a sea of emails, resistance to which seems as futile as Hamlet’s contemplation of taking ‘arms against a sea of troubles’.

For a part of a problem here is perception. The minute one talks about ‘Doing email’, email is in effect reified.

Whereas, the truth of the matter is email is not a thing. Sales fulfilment, that’s a thing; procurement, that’s a thing; so too are, for example, designing a spec, evaluating a project, or mentoring a colleague. But doing is email isn’t.

Email’s a medium of communication. Like the telephone. Or the post. Occasionally someone might say, ‘I need to make some telephone calls’. But not often. And nowhere near as often as “I need to do my emails’.

The natural thing to do with the telephone, or paper correspondence, is to deal with it as part of something that really is a thing.

Your organisation is in the early stages of a drainage project, say. You need to contact the client to arrange access: well, you’re most likely to make that call when you’re working on the drainage project. The drainage project is the thing; the telephone is merely the communication medium you’ve opted to use.

So what follows from this? In general, it pays not to think of doing email as a thing in itself. Avoid using that phrase ‘doing email’. Instead, allocate the emails you need to read or to send to the allotted category.

If, for example, something you have to do each week is deal with compliance issues, then deal with the compliance-related emails then.

Managing email in this way enables greater mental focus, no question. But it also helps you to manage the momentum of your work — a key step in reducing the sense of unwelcome pressure.

To make that point more explicit: ‘doing emails’ typically results in you moving some things on, or allowing some things to be moved on, before they’re necessary. You are in effect ceding control of prioritisation, making the communication medium the decisive criterion.

And by ‘doing emails’ you’ll find that, as soon as you’ve dispatched your replies, you’ll start receiving replies to your replies. Email then takes over the fast line and everything else has to move into the crawler lane.

Take-home message: Allocate emails to categories of work that really are things.

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