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How to get better at email: What science tells us

Email is all-pervasive, and arguably one of the most important tools of modern business. But the fact is most of us are not particularly good at it, wasting time on messages we should ignore and losing track of those that we should be focusing on. Then there’s the base human instinct to cc: everyone in our address notebook whenever possible.

What are the best ways to take control and optimize your use of email? Quartz turned to academic research from around the world and other thoughtful sources to compile these insights and suggestions.

If you want a reply, ask simple questions

A group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University sought to understand how people attend to incoming email. They found that people are more likely to respond to information requests—whether important or trivial—if they’re easy to address. Social messages also get a quick reply because they’re “fun.” By contrast, very important but complex messages that require a lot of work to answer often don’t get a response. (For a recent take on how to get important people to read your emails, you can read Adam Grant’s six-point checklist.)

Do not disturb

Researchers from Loughborough University in the UK studied how being interrupted by emails affects productivity. They found that on average workers allow themselves to be interrupted every five minutes by emails. The researchers concluded that this level of interruption was negatively impacting workplace productivity and drew up the following recommendations:

  • Check email no more frequently than once every 45 minutes.
  • Don’t cc: lots of people on messages
  • Turn off incoming email notifications and set up email clients to display the sender, subject line and the first three lines of the email to make messages easier to scan and triage.

Sign the charter

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conferences, drew up an email charter to stem the flow of flooded inboxes. The 10 rules of the charter are all intended to clamp down on how chained to our emails we’ve become. The first and fundamental principle of the charter is the onus falls on the sender to ensure the email takes the least possible amount of time to process, even if that means taking more time before sending. Other rules include avoiding replying to messages with single line messages that say things like “Great!” and not using email signatures or logos that appear as attachments.

The idea is to stick a link to the charter at the bottom of your emails so that when you take a couple of days to reply, or appear curt, you not only have something to justify your behavior, but you encourage others to do the same.

Email is still the office favorite

In a study of communication habits of small companies, researchers from the FX Palo Alto Laboratory found email to be the favored method of workplace communication. This was closely followed by face-to-face interactions. One of the reasons for this is the written record nature of email. Workers are keen to send emails to ensure proposals, schedules and ideas are documented for future reference.

Technical people especially like to email

In a study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, researchers found that technical workers such as IT professionals prefer email over face-to-face communication because it allows them the time to process information more deeply than face-to-face communications. Email is also an ideal medium for reviewing and revising work. Another reason for technical professionals’ preference for it is that it allows them to go back over complex exchanges of information.

But use something other than email if you can

Is it possible to reduce, or even phase out, the use of email within offices? Virginia Tech researcher Aditya Johri found that a strong “communication ecology”—i.e. a mix of internal blogs, instant messaging, and social networks—drastically reduces the need for email. Which means messages that do go have to go through email are less likely to get lost in a daily flood of them.

Workplace email training helps

A German study asked whether workplace training on best practices for email could have any impact on productivity. The training focused on three key areas—improving coping techniques for handling large volumes of incoming email, improving personal workflow, and enhancing email literacy in order to bring more clarity to communication. Roman Soucek and Klaus Moser from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg found that employee stress from being overwhelmed by their inboxes was reduced, as was the number of interruptions incurred from emails. Employees also made better use of the range of email functions available to them. The one area that training didn’t help with, however, was in deciphering ambiguous emails. In these cases, face-to-face communications was still needed to understand what the sender was trying to say.

No matter what, gossiping is pervasive

Tanushree Mitra and Eric Gilbert from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that gossip is all-pervasive in organizations and that it appears both in personal exchanges as well as formal business communications. By studying the email usage of Enron employees released in court filings, Mitra and Gilbert also found organizational gossip to be a social process that involves gossip sources (its generators) and gossip sinks (its silent readers.) Mitra and Gilbert concluded that if companies can scan employees’ email to identify gossip sources, they could get a better idea of workplace mood. It doesn’t make things any better, but if you gossip over your work email you can know at least that you’re not alone.

Anna Codrea‑Rado

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