What Is E-mail?
E-mails are: “Messages that are sent electronically from one computer to another.” – Merriam-Webster
What Is the Problem
This definition doesn’t make e-mail sound too stressful. In the past we sent paper letters to each other using a similar system without creating the nightmare that e-mails can cause. It seems the transition shouldn’t be such a challenge.
The biggest difference between e-mail and “snail mail” is speed and cost per message. Those two issues alone drive the chaos that e-mail creates. It would be like living in a world in which we were free to drive cars at the speed of light. The number of trips people take would surge. Perhaps your friends would visit you without a break and the number of salespeople at your door would skyrocket.
E-mail has created the problem of too many people trying to communicate with you. It is so cheap and easy to send multiple messages. For these reasons, a serious problem has emerged.
To make things even worse, we ourselves are not innocent. We contribute to piles of e-mails in other people’s inboxes. Like pipes in a house that cannot handle the quantity of material being flushed, the toilets overflow.
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Are We Ready to Change?
You have two choices:
- Live with this situation of receiving piles of e-mails from others and sending piles of e-mails to others,
- Change how you handle incoming e-mails and how you send e-mails to others.
You are reading this book because you would like to make a change. I am certain you will find some of the strategies to be effective.
Who’s the Boss?
“E-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones give us fabulous communication ability, but because we live and work in our own little worlds, that communication is totally disorganized.” — Marilyn vos Savant
What E-mail Should Be
E-mail should be something that saves us time. It makes communication possible with people when they aren’t available for meetings. We can communicate with people on the other side of the world.
This means we no longer waste time trying unsuccessfully to call people. In addition, with tighter communication, we can avoid project delays. Instead, we can address issues and resolve them quickly.
What E-mail Isn’t
E-mail isn’t a means of communicating every thought we have on an issue. It isn’t a substitute for actually meeting with people. Some issues can’t be resolved through e-mail.
Let’s Tame the Beast!
We are now in a great place to go through all the tricks and tips I have discovered for managing e-mails. You will need to decide which tricks work best for you.
(1) Do Unsubscribe to Excessive Newsletter Subscriptions
Receiving newsletters doesn’t mean you have the time to read them. If you aren’t reading newsletters in your inbox, cancel the subscriptions. It takes time to review your inbox and these newsletters take up valuable time. Make sure that all e-mails you are spending time on are things you plan to deal with. Also, don’t lie to yourself thinking you will later get around to reading piles of newsletters. Just unsubscribe; you can re-subscribe when you have more time.
(2) Do Respond to E-mails You Received Yesterday
This trick is called the “Tony Hsieh’s Yesterbox technique.” You shouldn’t be processing e-mails the second they arrive in your inbox. They steal time from you and are always calling you back to check. Decide that you won’t respond to them until the following day. This will slow down your temptation to watch your inbox. In addition, it will lower other people’s expectations of how you manage your inbox. Most people don’t consider one-day delays to be excessive in replying to e-mail. If something needs handling faster, they should call you.
(3) Do Turn off E-mail Notifications
The last two tricks deal with not constantly checking or handling e-mail. By turning off the pop-up notifications, you reduce the temptation to handle each e-mail upon receipt. I turned off the envelope symbol on my screen and I turned off all pop-up notifications. Thus, the messages aren’t visible. Then, I check for new e-mails on my phone every hour, but no more often. A person without the willpower to avoid checking e-mail when seeing an envelope on the screen will still suffer distraction wondering whether or not it is important.
(4) Do Respond to People
When buried under a pile of e-mails, not responding to people can be a serious temptation. Maybe ignoring incoming e-mails is the correct solution. However, ignoring them will create even worse problems. People assume that since they took the time to send you an e-mail, you will read and respond to the e-mail. This doesn’t mean you need to do anything more than:
- Read the e-mail.
- Reply, if required.
- Add the e-mail to your task management system.
It will also show that you are an organized and polite person who handles e-mail requests in a timely manner.
(5) Do Unsubscribe to Social Media Notifications
Do you need to see thousands of Facebook or Twitter notifications? You should dedicate a specific time every day when you will check these accounts. Thus, you don’t need to receive messages from these services at all. Once you have a routine for checking them daily, you can turn off all e-mail notifications from these services; you’ll see a sharp decrease in incoming e-mails.
(6) Do Keep Your E-mails Short
People assume that a long e-mail will be better since it will include a better explanation of what they are trying to convey. However, this is false and the exact opposite is true. The shorter the e-mail, the easier it is for people to process. If they need additional information, they can ask you.
One website went so far as to suggest that you should limit all e-mails to five sentences or less (http://five.sentenc.es/). This is a great way to restrict your temptation to ramble on and on in an e-mail wasting the time of the sender and recipient. In addition, sending brief e-mails will influence the kind and quantity of e-mails you receive.
(7) Do Use Only One Topic per E-mail
Try to confine your e-mail to a single issue. That makes it easier for the person to act upon what you are asking. If I ask someone for help on five issues, they often choose which issues they will address. Many times, they answer the easiest questions first and then never return to the harder ones. If there is only one question/task in each e-mail, then they are compelled to answer that issue.
I love it when people follow this strategy with me, sending me separate e-mails for each of the issues they need help with. I register them in my task management system without blurring lines about which project the e-mail is associated with.
(8) Do Use Bullet Points
You should strive for clarity in your e-mail. When you have a list of steps or issues, bullet points are a great solution.
When a person sees your bullet points, they will know what you are communicating. This is useful when you are asking a question. By numbering each question and answer, you save time later when trying to figure out which answer goes with which question.
(9) Do Maintain E-mail Etiquette
Forgetting e-mail etiquette is another common yet avoidable mistake. Many people see e-mail in the same way they see text messages in which you need not say hi or bye – you just write a quick message and forget all of the graces.
This is a terrible idea. It is important to remember that e-mails last forever. You make an impression whenever you meet another person. This includes e-mail. You want to make sure the impression you are giving is good. So, keep your e-mails respectful. You should start with a salutation and finish with a proper closing.
Notice I didn’t say you have to be formal. You want to keep common courtesy in place even when shooting off a short e-mail.
(10) Do Avoid Using Negative Emotion in Your E-mail
Any emotion you express in your e-mail is amplified 10 times more than you intended. That means that if your e-mail is sarcastic, it will sound to your reader like extreme aggression. So, don’t use e-mail to show negative emotion. It is much better to do that in person. One exception to this rule is when you express positive emotions and praise. People should be appreciated and complimented for their work much more often. E-mail is a perfect place to give this recognition. It makes a compliment even more effective, considering it also will be amplified 10 times.
(11) Do Classify Incoming E-mails Into Types
You need to classify incoming e-mails. It is a waste of time to handle all e-mails in the same way. The four basic classifications are e-mails you:
- Could do without
- Need to act on now
- Will take two minutes or less to complete
- Will work on later
(12) Do Use the Search Function to Find Old E-mails
You can use the search function to find e-mails, assuming you are using a good e-mail system that has this functionality. This method works even better when your subject lines contain key phrases that will be easy to retrieve. Sorting different fields in your “by sender” and “sent/received date” allows you to easily find an e-mail.
(13) Do Send E-mails Early or Late in the Day
“People were more responsive when they received e-mails either early in the morning–between 6 and 7–or around 8 at night. At those times, about 40 percent of e-mails received a response.” –Erik Sherman at Inc.com
The time of day you send e-mail will affect how long it takes you to get a response. One useful trick can be to put delays on e-mails you send. In Microsoft Outlook and other programs, you can set e-mail to go out at specific times. This does two things for you:
- You will be able to target the most effective periods during the day when people are most likely to respond.
- You slow down the tempo of an e-mail conversation, allowing people to think about the discussion. Quick responses back and forth may prevent proper digestion and consideration of the content.
(14) Do Use Your Subject Fields for Content Summary or a Question
This is one of my favorite tricks. People respond much faster if your e-mail summarizes its content in the subject field. If it is a question, I start the subject field with “Question:” making it clear to the reader that I am asking a single question.
This approach sends them a signal that they can answer this e-mail and delete it. Sometimes this method allows me to get a response ahead of other e-mails in that person’s inbox. There is something tempting about responding to an e-mail when you know it will take only a moment.
I appreciate it when others use this trick with me. When I see an e-mail with a clear request in the subject field, I know that I can answer the question quickly. You can give the recipient of an e-mail control and clarity over what to expect when they open an e-mail by starting out with the subject:
- “For info: . . .”
- “Update regarding: . . .”
- “Question: . . .”
- “Important: . . .”
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