My wife, Julie, turned me on to a web-based app called RescueTime. The app tracks your activity during the day to see how efficient and effective you are, and how much time you waste. One thing I’ve learned is that I spend a stupid amount of time on email. Many days, one third of my time is spent on email. One day, I topped out at 2.8 hours. To be fair, I average 3 days per week out of the office, so I do need to catch up during office hours.
So because of that, and because I interact with people from over 150 organizations over the course of a year, I’ve learned a few things things about email dos and don’ts.
—Keep it short. Some people handle 200 or more emails per day. It’s okay to leave out small talk, adverbs, and adjectives.
—Be concisely polite. Because your emails will be short, use “please” and “thank you.”
—Only ask questions that will take less than 60 seconds to type an answer. One of my pet peeves is when I see “Quick question” in the subject line, then a real thinker in the body, like “What are your thoughts on the best way to handle an employee with occasional bad body odor?” It may be a quick question for you to ask, but a lot of obligation for the recipient. Save the big questions for verbal communication.
—Avoid small talk and personal questions. Some conversations are better asked face-to-face or via a phone call. For example, “How have things been going since your daughter came home from the hospital?” The intention is good, but it can create a lot of work. Instead, you can substitute, “I’ve been thinking about you and that tough transition after your daughter’s surgery. Sometime, I wouldn’t mind hearing more about it.” But even that works better in person.
—Be specific, especially in terms of questions and timelines. Instead of typing, “I’ll get this back to you as soon as I can,” try, “I’ll get this to you by Friday—feel free to hassle me if you don’t hear from me by then.” This type of specificity will keep both of you from wondering if you’re on track with each other. Deadlines are kind. And, instead of questions like “Thoughts?”, try, “What pitfalls do you think I’m not seeing?”
—Even if you’re corresponding with the same person or people about multiple projects or issues, resist the temptation to be efficient by covering each issue or project in one email. It’s possible your receipiants organize by thread, and you’ve created an organizational burden for them. Maintain separate strands for separate issues.
—If you cc people, please make it clear why those people are cc’ed. For example, “I copied Steve on this because I think this data might sway his opinion on another matter.”
—Finally, speaking of threads, I got this gem from a colleague recently, and it inspired this post:
You’ve probably noticed I often change the subject instead of simply forwarding this kind of thing. The reason is that some email services link all messages with the same subject together. So this makes it less likely for someone to see something I don’t really want them to see via an accidental reply-all or reply to the wrong person. Pro tip for your next blog on “When you want to talk about sensitive issues via email but make sure others don’t accidentally see them.”
Email is here to stay for quite a while. Use it to be more efficient, but make sure you use it in ways that help others be efficient with you.