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Business Tips: Handling communication overload

by , MBA

How one pro handles an avalanche of e-mail, phone calls, and snail mail--successfully, every day. And how you can, too....

The idea of communication is always on my mind. I am a professional communicator, so maybe you would expect that. If you stop to think about it, all of us are professional communicators in one way or another. How much of your job depends on your communication skills? Probably far more than you realize. And the amount of communication headed your way each day is probably far more than you realize.

Business 2.0, the Dec 1998 issue, says, "The American worker is drowning in interruptions, according to a study conducted by Pitney Bowes and the Institute for the Future.


How much is typical?
The white collar worker, the study found, receives an average of 190 messages a day—including phone calls, email, faxes, internal memos, snail mail, Post-it notes, and cell phone calls."

Wow. Let’s see how this compares to what I receive, and then let’s see how to deal with this so you can keep both your job and your sanity.

I work for a publishing firm, as an editor. And I run a huge commercial website the other 40 hours of my 80+ hours workweek. Here’s what my day job gives me (we’ll also look at my side business). I typically get 5 calls each hour, for a rough average of 40 per day. I get about 30 emails, 3 faxes, 2 internal memos, 18 snail mail items, no Post-it notes, and no cell phone calls. That’s 93 messages a day at the office. This does not include in-person visits from coworkers, business contacts, and advertisers.

At home, what happens? Well, I run a side business, edit 2 newsletters (this one and one for the IEEE), manage 7 websites, and run my household. Phone calls are now running about 16 per day, mostly in the evening. I try to get callers off the line quickly. My record for e-mail received in any 24 hour period is 2,389 (home only). Typically, I get around 400 emails a day, which is much more tolerable than the 2,389. Faxes are few; internal memos don’t exist.

However, I have a stuffed-to-the-gills snail mail box each day. I’d put the number of mailings at 25. I’d be nuts to add to the mess by having a cell phone. Total messages at home: 441 per day. Add to that the 93 from work, and I average 534 messages a day—nearly three times that of the typical American worker. So, maybe I know something about handling messages and interrup-tions—they are not necessarily the same thing.

Two kinds of communication
There are two kinds, or modes, of communication: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous communication includes such things as phone calls. These are sometimes necessary, but they are always disruptive to the person receiving them. Generally, I do not like get-ting phone calls, because they interrupt me. So, I often do not answer the phone even if I am home. And I almost never answer it if I have company at the house.

At work, I don’t answer the phone if someone is in my office. If I am in the office of someone else and that per-son answers the phone (such rude behavior!), I simply leave. Even if it’s my boss (the boss I have now does not do this, but I have had bosses who did). If I am going to call someone, I make a short list of points I want to cover. If someone calls me with no agenda and just wants to chat, I tell that person I am busy—because I am, and that person is wasting what little time I have. What about tele-marketers? I tell them I consi-der the phone call spam and usually will not buy whatever they are selling. If I don’t have an existing interest in what they are selling, I tell them so immediately.

The phone calls at home used to be a major problem. I figured out long ago to have two cordless phones (2.4 GHz), so I can put dishes away, fold clothes, etc., while on the phone. I recently bought a cordless headset, which means I can even lift weights or run on my treadmill while on the phone. However, all that heavy breathing can be a problem for the caller, so I confine use of this technology to less-taxing activities, such as typing. Unless it’s a call from the IRS—they seem to like all that heavy breathing. The phone is potentially your biggest timewaster. Thus, it pays to control its effect on your life and your schedule.

Asynchronous communication is often incomplete, but it is efficient by nature. When it comes to e-mail, I have strict rules. If someone sends me a long e-mail, I send it back with a message that says, "Your e-mail is too long. Please tell me what I can do for you in just a few sentences. Thanks!" I always fill out the subject line as accurately as possible.


Cold efficiency
How do I handle 100s or even 1000s of emails a day? First, I sort them by subject—I delete any that have sensational sub-jects like "Make $1,000,000 a week from home!" Then I sort by sender. If I see a known spam sender, I delete. My e-mail program lets me preview a message in a separate pane before opening it, so I can then go through unopened messages and delete more spam. These three steps bring a day’s email down to maybe 40 messages. And they take me maybe five minutes. Only then do I attend to messages marked "priority." Once I attend to those, I file away any incoming jokes to a "delay read" folder.

A friend from New Zealand watched me run through 2,000 messages just this way, and I had the list down to 10 emails in less than 10 minutes. So, now he uses my method.

Snail mail is similar. I don’t feel obligated to read all of it. The first thing I do is sort it. I make a pile for quick read, toss, bills, and read later. It’s very easy to go through the mail this way—can you imagine, though, trying to handle your phone calls this way? Use asynchronous communication when you want to respect someone else’s time; use synchro-nous when the message is urgent or you must deal with things in a way that requires instant feedback.

Let’s not lose sight of something very important in all of this. It’s easy to think of people as "a pain" when they try to contact you. This attitude can cost you your job and your personal life. The key here is to think of excessive interruption as a pain, not the message or the messenger.

If your boss, for example, calls you with a problem, you don’t say, "Give me asynchronous communication so you don’t waste my time." My boss travels often, and when he calls, I know it’s because he needs to talk to me. He gets right to the point, and then he lets me go. He’s a very friendly guy, but he knows not to waste time just chat-ting.

So, he doesn’t. Email is often problematic, so to make sure I get the mes-sage, he uses asynchronous communication. He makes use of e-mail, faxes, and snail mail according to his own algorithm. It just so happens we think in similar ways on this issue, though he leans less toward the technology than I do. I also have to deal with people who give no thought as to how they communicate. Sometimes, however, it’s just good to hear from them.

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