email pollution or just a landfill

Email Pollution: Stop the Madness

In the spirit of Earth Day this week, I'd like to take some time to talk about ridding ourselves of pollution. In this case, the pollution might not infect our water supplies or poison the air, although it could be stuffing the landfill in our minds. I'm talking about email pollution. It's that ever-increasing load of messages in your Microsoft Outlook Inbox that you'd like to get to eventually, but never quite do. It's a big problem, but one that, with everyone's help, we can overcome.

First, we need to figure out exactly what the email pollution is. In many, if not most, organizations, email is the primary method of communication between employees -- more than the phone, certainly, but also more than in-person dialog or IM. An email message provides a record of the conversation, which makes it great for managers communicating with their employees, either individually or in a group, and any other situation in which you might need to refer back to what was said. Also, for communicating with contacts outside your organization when you have less visibility into someone's availability, email makes perfect sense.

Related: Self-Inflicted Wounds with Microsoft Outlook

But at some point, you have to do something with every message that lands in your Inbox. Read it. Delete it. Respond to it. File it. Print it. Maybe several different actions are necessary. Or maybe you're just going to ignore it -- but remember, choosing not to decide is still a choice. I've seen statistics showing that a ridiculously small amount of the email we receive is actually necessary, useful, or important to getting our jobs done -- maybe something like 10 percent. Everything else is garbage landing on the trash heap of our day: email pollution.

Now: What can you do to reduce pollution and help save the world from this scourge? First, recognize that there are two types of Inbox pollution: self-inflicted and externally imposed. You might not be able to affect the amount of external pollution you receive, but you can make yourself a better citizen of the world by avoiding adding to anyone else's Inbox pollution with what you send. So, what follows are a few suggestions to help with this all too common problem.

Stop Flogging Yourself

Self-inflicted pollution includes all the mailing lists you've signed up for: newsletters, alerts, discussion groups, advertisements, whatever. You need to make tough decisions about the value those messages bring you. If you find you're not even opening the email each time it arrives, it's a safe bet you should unsubscribe from that list. If the unwanted messages don't have a simple unsubscribe link, use Outlook's Junk controls to Block Sender or even block the sender's domain for persistent offenders.

In most cases, the email message is just a pointer to a website anyway. The question becomes whether you need that reminder to check for new content: push versus pull. If you'll regularly check that website anyway, you're pulling information and you can do away with the email notifications. If you want the nudge to check what's new, keep the push of the email.

You can set rules in Outlook so that particular messages from certain senders or domains (or whatever criteria you choose) are automatically sent to a folder other than the Inbox. This works as a sort of halfway measure -- you're still getting the push, but it isn't showing up in your Inbox to add to the clutter. However, you have to make an effort to check that other folder. I think most people will find they never go back to look at these messages, which begs the question of how useful they were in the first place. Save yourself some headaches, and just be ruthless about what you're willing to receive.

Don't Flog Others, Either

I've heard it said that Reply All is a privilege, not a right -- or at least it should be. Certainly I know a lot of people who would support the need for a formal Reply All certification before this feature is enabled for users. The majority of externally imposed Inbox pollution can be traced directly to Reply All. In some organizations, I imagine Cc runs a close second. In either case, somebody somewhere thought you needed to know what they had to say (or just as likely, they didn't pay any attention to who was receiving their message), but to you, it just doesn't matter.

We've all seen those accidental Reply Alls, which then breed additional responses like rats at a dump, but it's not really those occurrences I'm talking about here. Yes, those cases do result in email pollution -- but the answer is to attack the source. If the Exchange Server admin can't throttle the offending user (and let's face it, that's never recommended, for legal reasons), perhaps he or she can at least throttle the message thread. As a user, if you're on Outlook 2013 or Outlook 2010, don't forget the availability of the Ignore Conversation option: Click Ignore on a message, and all future posts to that thread will shoot directly to your Deleted Items folder.

Worse, to my mind, than these accidental Reply All messages are the ones done deliberately but unnecessarily. For example, a coworker in your group sends out a resource to everyone, then five minutes later someone else (frequently a manager), uses Reply All to say, "Thanks. This is really helpful." Every time you hit Reply All, you need to ask yourself whether everyone on that recipient list really needs to hear what you have to say. It might be that the manager wants to give thanks publicly to that employee, but the manager should do so only with full knowledge of the additional pollution being added to everyone else.

Alternatively, the Reply All might be a question or comment about the initial post. This is where you need to think carefully. Are you seeking clarification from the individual who sent the first message, or is it a matter that really should be opened to group discussion? My theory is to use the former as often as possible. If you ask a question back to the originator only, and that person feels everyone would benefit from the clarification, he or she can repost.

IM: Leave No Trace

The next question is whether you need to send an email message at all. Yes, email has long reigned supreme. But are you sure it's the best mode of communication for the particular issue you're about to raise with someone? This question is something Microsoft has been addressing with Microsoft Lync for a while -- our ability within an organization to establish coworkers' availability (through free/busy or presence information) lets us choose the best method by which to contact them.

For a simple question, why not send an IM? For something that might require a bit of discussion or explanation, why not try a face-to-face? Ultimately, you'll save time over dealing with messages piling up in your Inbox. In the Lync 2013 or 2010 client as well as Communicator for OCS 2007, you can tag contacts so you get status updates. Sure, they might be busy right now, but you'll get a pop-up notification when they're free. And then you can bother them all you want. (Hey, their green lights said they were free, right?)

The Microsoft clients also let you instigate group IM sessions or add others to an ongoing discussion. Are you making plans to go somewhere for lunch or want to see who might be up for a drink after work? We probably don't need an email about that. Whether I'm interested and want to reply or not, I have to delete that message and all the Reply Alls that follow. From an administrative perspective, sure, those IM conversations are tracked and recorded for compliance if necessary (provided your users aren't using a non-corporately supplied IM program). But from the user side, those IMs are champions for leaving no trace.

The Wit List

How do you deal with the off-topic messages that people inevitably want to send around to your group? You know what I'm talking about. Someone needs a recommendation for a new veterinarian. Someone else spots a great deal on [insert product here] at [insert store or website here]. And of course we all love the funny cat pics and stories about the great award someone's kid just won. At my office, we're fond of forwarding around the really badly written or completely inappropriate -- and frequently hilarious -- press releases we receive.

You want to have a workplace that encourages a friendly atmosphere, so it's hard to just outlaw this brand of email pollution altogether. What we've done in my office is create a dedicated distribution list (DL) in Outlook for this type of off-topic, humorous, non-work-related message. Anyone who wants to can be part of the list, but it's opt-in: You make a choice. If you don't want to be bothered by this stuff, you'll never see it. We named our DL the Wit List, since people's attempts at humor would be a large part of it, although it's actually witless as often as not -- but that's just me talking.

Having a dedicated list for off-topic messages does nothing to prevent message threads with legitimate discussions from degenerating into pointless drivel. The best thing to do in such cases is, once again, to remember that Ignore Conversation option. And the rule of "Don't Feed the Trolls." Because once they get going, they can drop more pollution than you're willing to shovel.

The Rest Is Silence

Shakespeare's birthday was also this week, in case you recognize the quote that heads this section. One of the most easily avoidable bits of email pollution is the short response message that just confirms that, yes, I got your email, thank you, and so forth. Are we working with people who still have trust issues when it comes to email delivery? Unless a response is specifically called for, I try my best to avoid tossing these little bits of litter back at my coworkers.

As with the group messages that I discussed above, you want to be polite, and you want to thank people when they've answered a question or sent you something you've asked for. But what's wrong with the old "thanks in advance" tacked on to your initial message? Then, when you get what you need, no further attention to that thread is needed and no unnecessary additions to anyone's Inbox. To paraphrase a fine old saying (from Disney's Thumper rather than Shakespeare), You can say something nice by saying nothing at all.

Here's a special kind of pollution: the unnecessary detail. If you're emailing your group to let them know you won't be in that morning, I don't need to get a vivid description of the color and texture of the vomit coming out of your child to explain your absence. In fact, I don't need to know that the kid is throwing up at all, or leaking fluids from any other orifices. We have a really nice generic word for such situations: Little Johnny is sick. If that's not enough detail for your boss to believe you, he or she can query you in private.

Be Mindful

I'm sure this isn't an exhaustive list of the types of email pollution or the ways to combat them. What's most essential is just being ever mindful of what you're doing when you respond to a message. Think about it: Are you participating in a useful discussion that advances the goals or your organization, or are you merely polluting the environment with virtual garbage?

We can make a difference. We can end the scourge of email pollution. We can make this a better world for ourselves and future generations. But it must start now, and every one of us must carry this message forward. Who's with me? Let's fight the good fight!

Thanks in advance.

Learn More: The Report of the Death of Email Was an Exaggeration

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
Follow Windows IT Pro on Twitter at @windowsitpro

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