In the continuum of communication techniques — from texts to meetings — email has a specific niche. Phone calls are immediate. Meetings have significant overhead and must be highly structured. Chat services (texts, GChat, and Slack) can be brief and efficient, but alert participants and interrupt them. In contrast, email allows you to communicate a detailed message that is permanently stored, searchable, and read at the leisure of the recipient. However, with the real phenomena of email overload, how can you use email to save time, not waste it?
Give a Default Option to Encourage Short Responses — If your email is asking for a decision, give a default option or a small number of choices too pick from. For example, if you are setting up a meeting, suggest a specific time: “Does Tuesday at 3:00 PM work for you?” You can leave the door open for other options and still limit the scope: “If that doesn’t work, what times on Wednesday work for you?” Too many options slow down decision making, and by providing a default option, you allow the recipient to answer with a time-saving one-line response.
Make Requests to Specific People — An email that begins with “Can someone…” is a waste of time. All recipients must read the email, understand the task, analyze if they have the time, see if anyone has already volunteered for the task, and possibly volunteer themselves. Worse, no one will feel directly responsible for the task, and since your recipients are likely to be very busy, the task may fall through the cracks. Instead, assign the task to a specific person, and CC other people who may care or contribute to the task. (A key exception is the use of collaborative inbox mailing lists, which are specifically are designed to allow subscribers to efficiently pick up and complete requests.)
Use If… Then to Reduce Follow-up Questions — By planning ahead with “if… then” statements or empowering the recipient to do more on their own, you reduce the amount of follow-up emails you need to handle. For example: “If you think that fixing the bug will take less than 4 hours, then go ahead and do it.” “If you can find suitable software for under $500, then get it.” Such pre-decisions delegate responsibility and reduce email traffic.
Use Mailing Lists for Information, not Dialogue — People use filters or digests on mailing lists to prioritize the flood of email. So if you need someone specific to respond, place them in the “To:” line. Expecting everyone on a mailing list to deeply read every group message causes a lot of extra work.
Make Your Subject Lines Meaningful and Concise — A good subject line lets all recipients better process the message. Is the email a request? Informational? Follow-up? If the subject is ambiguous or does not match the email content (such as thread hijacking), there is a good chance that your message will not be given the proper attention it deserves.
Keep Emails Short — Short emails get faster replies. Try to keep emails down to 5 sentences or less. Edit your emails to remove unnecessary phrases. The only email that should be larger is one that is informational, such as a report or training material, and therefore doesn’t require rapid processing.
In the end, brevity, specificity, and forethought in your emails will demonstrate that you value the recipient’s time and help you reduce your own inbox traffic.
- Robert Buccigrossi, Ph.D.