"You’ve got mail!" Remember when that alert sounded thrilling?

Today, not so much.

As scores of electronic messages pour into school eMail in-boxes and spill onto cell phones and handheld devices, the flood often leaves teachers and administrators feeling overwhelmed. But take heart. In just a moment, you’ll learn six strategies experts say will put you back in control of your eMail and rescue your endangered productivity.

"We’re like frazzled lab rats, being poked and prodded and beeped and pinged," says Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

The average employee in the United States receives 200 eMail messages a day, according to the business and technology research firm Basex in its report "Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us."

It’s an unfortunate irony that a system once lauded for its promises of efficiency has filled hours on the job with wasted, fragmented time.

Basex found that eMail correspondence and other interruptions decrease productivity for U.S. companies at a cost of more than $650 billion per year for billions of lost staff hours. For school employees, more time spent keeping up with eMail means less time focused on teaching and learning.

Constant access to information, communication, and technology has become such a big issue, experts say, that its implications go beyond a lack of productivity and focus at work. eMail and information overload also eats into the quality of relationships both at school and at home.

"Attention is the bedrock to learning, memory, social connection, and happiness," Jackson says.

And yet, at many schools and businesses, a culture is developing that rewards immediacy over focus, so that attending to what’s new at any given moment takes precedence over long-term goals. The result? A series of interruptions, such as eMail, that get in the way of the big-picture goals.

"eMail is being used like a drug to get a hit of accomplishment when one feels he is spinning his wheels," says technology analyst Craig Roth in his blog, KnowledgeForward.

In July, technology companies and other industry experts launched the non-profit Information Overload Research Group. Its mission: Raise awareness of how current communication tools can impede productivity.

And the industry that created this problem is also trying to capitalize by helping people organize their in-boxes.

A program called C-MAIL promises to help prioritize eMail by learning through the user’s clicks about what is more or less important.

The makers of Xobni, which is "inbox" spelled backwards, say their Microsoft Outlook plug-in speeds up the process by "threading" conversations, or grouping responses together.

Productivity gurus also have created a cottage industry out of eMail overload. Here’s a sampling of their advice:

(1) Don’t check eMail when you first start work. Experts say you should take care of an important task first before checking eMail, so that you don’t use eMail as an excuse for postponing more pressing obligations.

(2) Check eMail in batches, rather than fluidly throughout the day. Some experts suggest checking eMail twice a day; others, up to five times. But the important thing is efficiency.

"You wouldn’t do a new load of laundry every time you have a dirty pair of socks," says Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek.

(3) Minimize exchanges. "Learn to propose, instead of asking questions," Ferriss says. Instead of asking what time a person can meet for lunch, just jump right in and propose a few times. You can use "if, then" language, such as: "If you can’t meet at 11, how about 12?"

(4) Limit sending eMail. Sending less eMail means receiving less eMail, and sending shorter messages will garner shorter responses.

"This does not mean that you should write elliptically or bypass standard grammar, capitalization, and punctuation," says Merlin Mann on his productivity blog 43 Folders, "just that your well-written message can, and should, be as concise as possible."

(5) Take it to zero. In an extreme case, some experts suggest wiping your in-box completely away and starting fresh. You can always send your contacts a message telling them what you’ve done, and asking them to resend any truly important messages.

(6) Use other forms of communication. eMail has earned a solid place in the workplace, but in some cases it’s not the most appropriate form of communication.

"When you’re overusing it for the petty things, like [contacting] the guy in the next cubicle, stand up and ask him the question," says Cherie Kerr, author of The Bliss or ‘Diss’ Connection: eMail Etiquette for the Business Professional.

She suggests picking up the phone if an eMail thread gets longer than three back-and-forths.

"I don’t care how many pieces of technology we have," she says. "At the end of the day, it’s always going to be about relationships."

Links:

Information Overload Research Group

C-MAIL

Xobni

KnowledgeForward

43 Folders

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Easy Email Archiving resource center. Today’s schools, much like businesses around the world, depend on technology to survive. As school and district employees’ careers become increasingly mobile, eMail has become a quick, easy, and preferred method of communication. Go to: Easy Email Archiving


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