Do you live in your e-mail inbox? Almost everyone does, even though there’s lots of evidence that handling e-mail all day every day makes us less productive, not more.
E-mail is especially bad if you’re trying to manage projects effectively. There are a couple of advantages to it, to be sure: people already use e-mail ubiquitously, and they already know how to use it well (or at least they think they do). After that, though, it’s all downside.
Here are a few reasons to rely on something besides e-mail to get the job done.
1. E-Mail Often Includes the Wrong People
We’ve all been trapped in one of those annoying “Reply All” threads, where message after message fills up the inboxes of everyone on the “cc” list. It gets even better when some of those included didn’t need to be on the list in the first place. (Extreme example: the hilarious worldwide reply-all thread that engulfed BP earlier this year.)
It’s bad enough when you include too many people on your list; it’s even worse when people who need to be copied are overlooked and thus left out of the loop for whatever important topic is being discussed. Either way, confusion and wasted time are inevitable.
Contrast that to using a team wiki, a ticket-tracking system, or any other shared platform that uses threading, tagging, and similar features to enable group communication around a project. Tools like these make it easy for each person involved with a project to see the latest information on the project at any time — without ever missing a memo or having to wade through irrelevant replies.
2. E-Mail Stinks as a To-Do List
Lean-management expert Dan Markovitz has written about how too many people live in their inbox, trying to use it as their to-do list instead of doing something as simple as slotting their tasks into a calendar. The tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham has written about the same problem in pointed terms:
Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now. Email is not a messaging protocol. It’s a to-do list. Or rather, my inbox is a to-do list, and email is the way things get onto it. But it is a disastrously bad to-do list.
Graham wants a new to-do list protocol that sets aside the messaging and gives each of us more control over what someone can put onto our lists, rather than simply lobbing things our way as with e-mail.
Productivity experts like Markovitz and David Allen preach that you have to pry your to-do’s loose from your inbox and get them into a system that properly tracks tasks and dependencies in one place. That gets more complex when the system needs to handle all the tasks carried out across a team . . . but the answer for teams still isn’t e-mail. Fortunately, Autodesk 360 and others allow you to manage the work of entire teams.
Whatever you do, don’t rely on your inbox — much less the disconnected inboxes of everyone involved in your project — to handle vital tasks.
3. E-Mail Drowns the Signal in So Much Noise
That important, detailed update you e-mailed to the team this morning? It’s buried among dozens of other new messages, including sale announcements from online retailers, monthly newsletters from corporate vendors, outright spam, and the note alerting everyone in the building about the leftover birthday cake in the break room — not to mention all the other projects team members are working on.
Then there’s the threading problem already mentioned: even if you are focused on the project at hand, you may have to wade through dozens of e-mails just to understand where the discussion has gone. Woe to you if you miss a morning at the dentist and let those e-mails pile up.
Whatever the case, you don’t want your project to compete with the rest of the inbox. Let it live someplace where people can give it full attention and see everything they need to all at once.
4. E-Mail Is a Disaster for File Management and Version Control
If you deal with big spreadsheets or graphics files, you’re already well aware of the size limitations for attachments on e-mails. But it gets worse: even if you can send your files by e-mail, you shouldn’t, because there’s no way for people to tell whether they’re looking at the latest version. And how will you know if someone else made a revision after that?
Whether you’re refining your machine-ready designs for manufacturing a product or revising the PowerPoint you’re going to show to potential clients or investors, you need to be able to track which version is which, and to leave notes that everyone can see before they accidentally make changes to the wrong file. Ideally, tracking your files would integrate cleanly into everything else you’re doing for a project, too, rather than leaving a mess in everyone’s inbox.
The sad truth? These four reasons, bad as they are, are probably just the tip of the iceberg for why you should steer away from e-mail. So tell us in the comments: How does e-mail get in the way of managing YOUR team’s projects?