Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

News Flash: You're Using Email Incorrectly (and These 3 Other Office Tools, Too)

From pens to snacks to office gossip—when you’re seated five feet away from your co-worker, sharing everything is a cinch. And yet, to discuss final details of a presentation you’ll give together in 30 minutes, you send her an email? There’s something wrong with this picture.

Email, conference calls, online calendars, and chat apps help us keep in touch and on track when we’re far apart. The tool, however, is only as effective as the hand that wields it. Knowing when to use each of the apps at your disposal and how to get the most out of them often makes the difference between hours wasted and products shipped.

At Blinkist, we work on making reading and learning more efficient, so streamlining is in our DNA. When we noticed that communication was getting inefficient even in our small team, we set about figuring out what was happening that kept us from working our best. We found that by optimizing how we use our everyday tools, we could get far more done.

Below, we identify the four common tools you’re probably misusing, too, and how you can fix your form.

1. Email

The Fumble

As easy as email is, there are a lot of ways to get it wrong: using email as a vehicle for a long debate and for one-­word answers that could be nixed or relayed in person, for starters. And as tempting as it is to use your email chain as a place for extensive argumentation with documentation, email is no place for critical discussions around project details. What you’re doing in each of these instances is adding complication and lag time to your activities and those of your recipients.

The Fix

For important or urgent tasks, meet up face to face so you can address issues head on and get answers faster. By doing it live, you’re not just protecting your own time, you’re helping your co-workers, too. If everyone knows that urgent news never arrives via email, there’s no reason for constant inbox refreshing, and people can focus on getting things done instead.

Think of email as your way to kick off a discussion or set an agenda, so when you sit down with your team to make the magic happen, it can.

2. Conference Calls

The Fumble

Conference calls are beautiful—you can do them anytime, anywhere—but because they can feel more casual than in-­person meetings, they can also cause efficiency issues.

First, because they feel informal, it’s easy for too many people to get roped in. The result is that instead of being able to attend to critical work only they can do, your team is trapped in a meeting of dubious usefulness.

Second, it’s easy to overlook that, though they may seem more casual, they can be very mentally taxing. Conference calls require preparation and intensive listening, which takes a big bite out of your daily ration of focus. Schedule one too early in the morning, and it can sap your focus for the day. Pencil it in after hours, and you’ll be dealing with a day defined by anticipation of your late­night work session.

The Fix

First, keep in mind that not everybody has to be invited. Instead, involve people who are informed about the project and are critical contributors. Have one person in the meeting take notes and share with the rest of the team so that the others can focus on work.

And remember to choose your call time wisely. Whenever possible, don’t schedule conference calls first thing in the morning or late at night. By finding a time in between, you’ll be safeguarding your focus.

3. Chat

The Fumble

Inter-­office chat, particularly for companies located on more than one floor or in different locations, is a very useful surrogate for face-to-­face: It happens in real time, it allows for instant transfer of files, and it facilitates spontaneity. But as with conference calls, the very virtues of chat are also its flaws.

The main problem with office chat is that people feel freer to write off-the-cuff questions because they’re not technically interrupting—the recipient can still choose whether or not to respond. The thing is, we’re reactive creatures, and we feel that we do need to stop what we’re doing and attend to the people who ping us. Even though your intention with getting in touch by chat is to be unobtrusive, you have little control over whether your colleague’s work is interrupted. If she sees a message notification, chances are she’ll look. Even if she doesn’t respond outright, a portion of her focus will now be diverted by your remark or question.

The Fix

In general, chat should only be used for quick questions that are keeping you from moving forward with your work, or to set up a time with a co-worker to talk through a larger issue. Anything else, put in an email so you’re not disturbing your colleagues.

And if you’re on the receiving end of too many chats? Turn off notifications just as you would for email. Many chat services also allow a user to go “invisible,” which is a nice way to stay involved (particularly if you’re part of a constantly updated group chat) without feeling obliged to respond.

4. Calendars

The Fumble

The #1 misuse people make with their calendars is treating them like to-­do lists. If you take a look at your calendar and see anything that resembles, “pick up milk” or “schedule a haircut,” it’s time to rethink how you’re using it.

Another calendar misuse is failing to use it to protect your time, rather than just organize it. When you’re approached with a proposal for a new project and your calendar tells you that you can fit it in, remember that it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. It’s important to take a look at your goals and values first.

The Fix

Aim to keep your calendar a sacred space for meetings and events that are either bound to a specific date and time or involve people other than just you. You can start changing your calendar practices with a to-­do list for tasks like calling your doctor or picking up flowers. Crossing off small tasks is immensely satisfying, and by putting them on a manageable list, they’ll take on a different character—one that allows you to see them as fitting in between important events rather than becoming events unto themselves.

And don’t forget to always align new opportunities with your role and your goals. Anything that doesn’t match up in the here and now or to your wished-­for future doesn’t belong on the docket (or on your calendar).

With just a few simple tweaks, you can use the tools at your disposal to get more done. Share these tips around the office, and your whole workplace will be way more efficient before you know it!

Photo of office tools courtesy of Shutterstock.

A logo with "the muse" in white text.