How to Stop E-Mail From Ruining Your Summer Vacation

E-mail overload can ruin your summer trip. One solution: Use Twitter, blogs and wikis to tame your inbox this summer - and beyond. Here's advice from one IBM employee who cut the e-mail cord more than a year ago and has not looked back.

Does your summer vacation checklist include sifting through hundreds of e-mails the day before you return to the office? Will your BlackBerry be as essential as your swimsuit? Do you fear your "staycation" will turn into writing e-mails each day?

It's hard to cut the e-mail dependency when we take a vacation. Half of the workforce checks business e-mail on weekends and 34 percent while on vacation. Work overload—before, during and after vacation—can deter many from even taking their allotted days off. In fact, 56 percent of Americans fail to take all their vacation days.

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While the prospect of going "e-mail cold-turkey" during vacation is daunting, what if you detached from e-mail while working?

More than a year ago, I did just that at my job as an IBM consultant. Receiving an average of 30 to 40 e-mails a day meant spending a couple hours reading and crafting responses. Instead of a means to accomplish my priorities, my inbox had become a "to-do" list for others.

So I made the leap to give up business e-mail, shifting the bulk of my communication to social media platforms like Twitter, blogs and wikis. Sound hard? Not really.

There were challenges. I report to a manager in the U.S. but live and work on the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Most people thought I'd give in after a couple of months or be fired. But quite the opposite has happened.

Social Software Tools = Better Collaboration

Now my daily e-mails are down to five or so a day—taking about 15 minutes. This has freed me to tap social software tools to create richer collaboration with colleagues.

I'm not alone in the move to embrace social networking in the workplace. Now more than ever, companies offer employees a range of social networking tools to work smarter and faster, and collaborate with colleagues who live a world apart.

Here are some lessons learned on how to take control of productivity outside of the inbox:

Begin by taking a step back and evaluating how you use e-mail. Group your inbox by activities and target more efficient ways to accomplish those tasks.

For example:

1. Probably the biggest productivity gain you can make is to avoid e-mail for filesharing. Having multiple people comment on a draft creates version control. Instead, use fileshare software or a wiki so everyone can see the most current version and review the prior comments.

2. Put your project status reports in a wiki. That way everyone can have access, make comments, ask questions and feel involved. Collective intelligence and team action items are saved there.

3. Are people asking you the same question again and again? Create a blog about your area of expertise. Organize it on different topics and provide updates on the current projects there. This allows people to "self-serve" on areas of your expertise.

4. Do you e-mail a newsletter? Instead, make a blog or wiki. Just like a status report, you can get others to contribute to it directly.

5. This may sound tricky, but avoid e-mail for thank-you notes. Instead make your thank you's in a more public forum like LinkedIn, Twitter or your company's social software system. It's better for the employee's reputation management and can build loyalty from that individual.

6. Avoid "flame" e-mails altogether. In general, escalate issues using the phone, not e-mail. Have the courage to express more complex feelings or communications using a one-on-one discussion, which is typically less misunderstood and a better use of time.

7. Train people around you to follow these hints. That way you can help shape the team's responses and increase productivity for others.

The bottom-line is that transparency in your work builds trust with your colleagues and partners. We probably don't even have much of a choice either anymore. That's the kind of impact that social software is having within the corporate world. Social computing is empowering knowledge workers to be much more in control of with whom they connect, collaborate and share expertise.

Building your personal brand online is a journey and not without a learning curve. Follow your company's social media guidelines to start developing online expertise using social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and others.

Allowing others to "self-serve" on your blog and wikis for their own projects means no one has to wait on you to send a file or give an update. With your expertise accurately captured, this can also give you some peace of mind when you unplug and relax on your vacation this summer.

Luis Suarez is a social software evangelist for IBM. IBM social software evangelist. Read more about his work here.

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