So far, we have endeavoured to explore the topography of email usage – first by tracing the pitfalls associated with its use, and then by attempting to climb the heights this technology can aspire to. Now, we begin a series of profiles on people that embody the very spirit Mailcube strives to achieve: inventiveness and out-of-the-box thinking with productivity and quality of life in mind.
Gonçalo Gil Mata is a computer engineer and founder of Mind4Time, a coaching company with a focus on better time management. On the occasion of the publishing of his latest book, we sat with him for a conversation on email and beyond. This is part two of that interview.
Mailcube: Earlier we were discussing your recommendations for clients regarding email. How about personal rules? How do you handle email?
Gonçalo Mata: My work revolves around keynote speaking, training, seminars and coaching. This means I have long stretches of time where I’m not available to be reached. In some cases I prepare my clients by directing them to my assistant, but whenever I give someone my card, I’m upfront about something: my email reply window is close to a week. So they should expect some delay in getting a reply.
MC: Managing expectations from the outset.
GM: Managing expectations, but above all managing my commitment. Seeing as how I deal with very important and very busy people, the preferred channel with them is a mobile text. I end up using mostly SMS over email, because of the nature of these clients. Another thing I tend to do is send out as little emails as possible. I do this to prevent people from sending me too many emails that I won’t have time for. If someone breaks this and keeps sending me lots of emails, they’ll usually get a reply from me asking for the conversation to be switched to a call. “Call me” tends to be a frequent email I write.
MC: Is this because email is asynchronous?
GM: More than asynchronous, it’s flat. Email is very lacking when it comes to transmitting something that approaches the realm of emotion. Being able to tell when a client is frustrated, being able to convey anxiety or urgency, or simply being as warm as possible. All these are important tools in communication, if not even the most important of all. Some things may be able to fit neatly into square pegs when it comes to management, but not everything. For example, when you’re doing status reporting, it’s hard to keep it simple. You can try your hand at listing tasks with stages such as “done”, “not done” or “in progress” – but not everything is as readily qualifiable as that. You’ve got to make an effort to use operational rules, and draw those rules with your work group. Then when it comes to sensitive, freestyle things like brainstorming, then it just becomes silly to do it in a platform like email.
MC: Right, the lack of emotional expression factors in there. But what about the communications that absolutely do have to go through email? Do you have a set of tips you pass on to your clients?
GM: For all the reasons I mentioned before, start by making sure email is the adequate platform for what you’re trying to do. Once you’re sure, there are a couple of golden rules. Send few emails if you don’t want to receive many. Make sure the first few lines of text on an email make clear a) what the email is about and b) why you’re telling it to that specific person.
MC: But that gets more complex when the email goes out to more than one person.
GM: Sure, but when you don’t know who you should send an email to, a common mistake is to send it to basically everyone related to the subject. This happens often and people underappreciate what a waste of time and resources it represents to all involved. You can always send it to just one person and preface it with an action request – making clear you’re not sure if they are the right person, and if they’re not to direct you to who is. Another golden rule I have is to try and set a cadence on email reading. Our phones brought us too close to our inboxes: we check on email in traffic, having breakfast, everywhere. But this has two pitfalls. The first one is that I’m breaking my brain’s intuitive rhythm. Instead of having a serene moment where your mind space is free and accelerating the decision making process, you’re constantly interrupting the buildup to check on email. The second pitfall is that I’m tempted to reply to the simpler emails and start building a pile of emails that will take longer to address. This is especially critical on emails that calls for a decision, and in those instances I’m unable to deliver a steady and thoughtful approach – I’m in execution mode, and that’s not always a good start for decisions. Last but not least, the last golden rule is to empty the inbox regularly, all the way down to zero if possible. My clients tend to resist this last one, but once they adopt it they never go back. I recommend doing this as often as possible, but for some clients I understand that’s not always viable. So I recommend that they do this purge on Sunday nights. It’s perfect timing in that it gives you a good perspective on the week to come, and allows you to start it off fresh.
MC: To wrap things up, I’d like to discuss the prophesied End of Email. How do you feel about this, do you think email has had its day?
GM: Short and mid-term, I think it’s impossible to do away with email. Long term, I’m not so sure. I think the platform itself is ready to evolve. And we can tell by the common complaints about email that companies have. One of those is that email brings out the problems when it comes to responsibilities – it amplifies the grey areas each job posting has. Because no one is entirely sure whose responsibility some matter is, they pass it along to everyone that is related to it. And what this causes is that there’s going to be a lot of missed catches, because when a matter is on everyone’s hands, that also means it’s in no one’s. Another complaint is that email is expensive. How often do we hear complaints about how much of the workday was lost inside the inbox? We need to be aware of the cost everyone’s time has. I truly think that’s the key subject for the future – the next big subject.