One of the biggest problems with email overload involves not only email, but communication in general. Between email, instant messaging, text messaging, and phone calls (to mention some of the more common ones), there are so many ways to communicate w/ people these days. However, using the wrong medium for the wrong type of information and responsiveness expectation can be a big waste of everyone’s time.
I’m going to write some followups to this post that go into greater depth, but at a high level I think it’s important to consider the following types of things when deciding which communication medium to use:
Is time critical responsiveness involved? Do you need an answer right now? If so, call or use IM if the person is online. Expecting people to be constantly checking email sets up an ineffective email processing habit.
Is there a lot of information that needs to be documented (ie: notes, specific steps/procedures/etc.)? If so, use email so the person has all that information and does not need to write it down and verify it all.
Will this involve some synchronous back and forth? A lot of times there’s a flowchart-like process in making a simple decision that involves a number of back-and-forth queries. Again, use a phone call or IM for this so two people aren’t sitting there refreshing their inbox waiting for a response.
These things (and many more) sound so simple, but I find many of us engaging in 15 minute phone calls that could be a 5 minute email or sending five rounds of emails back and forth that could have been a two minute phone call or IM convo.
There’s a lot written about how to process email and stay on top of your communications, but I believe the first step to getting information under control is using the right medium for each situation – something that a lot of very tech-savvy people still don’t do right.