The first step toward taming your email is by starting with the person in the mirror. Master your own email habits before you tackle everyone else’s.
Send Fewer Emails
If you send out fewer emails, you will receive fewer. Always ask yourself if an email needs to be sent out or if it can wait until later.
Delay Sending Emails
Most of the email services available have a delayed delivery option. Ask yourself if you can delay sending the email until 9am the next morning. If you can, then do.
- Outlook Desktop App: Delay or schedule sending email messages
Don’t Hit Reply-All
How many of us have been a part of an email chain where everyone was responding to the whole group and twenty people were being spammed when they didn’t need to? The fewer people on an email, the fewer responses you’ll get back, so stop and ask yourself if you really need to hit reply-all. You need to hit reply-all if more than one person needs to know the email was responded to, if your response will influence others, and if the email impacts 70% of the people on the chain.
Use Blind Carbon Copy More
BCC is a great way to keep people in the loop even when they are not the primary person an email is intended for. If you BCC on emails, then other people will not be able to hit “Reply-ALL” and spam the whole group. The BCC’d recipient will know the email is sent without being subjected to all the chatter that happens afterward. This is especially important when you’re sending to large groups.
Don’t Send Many Emails When One Will Do
Use your drafts or a notes app to keep track of things that you want to send people that are not urgent. Once you hit three things, then send the email with three things instead of sending three separate emails.
Give Yourself Time to Back out
I have a rule that every email I send gets held in my outbox for one minute, which is plenty of time for me to realize that I shouldn’t send something. I can go delete it or move it to a draft before it gets sent. In Outlook, you can do this by creating a rule to defer delivery by one minute. If you’ve already started scheduling emails for the following morning, then you’ll also have plenty of time to back out of an email you shouldn’t send.
Have a Meeting, Phone Call, or Chat Instead
If it takes more than three emails, or if the email is going to be longer than a paragraph, just contact the person a different way. I have a personal rule that if I end up revising an email more than three times, it means I need to call them up and talk to them instead because the issue is too complex for email.
Always avoid email if you are breaking bad news to someone, if you are upset, or if you are resolving a conflict. Apologizing through email after the conflict is resolved is fine.
Bettina Buechel created a scale for deciding if things should be handled in email or in person by evaluating the scope of the media and the richness of the media. In this scale, face-to-face communication is at the opposite spectrum as a blanket email. So, when the stakes are high, and you have no room for misunderstanding, you will need all the communication richness you can manage, so you should talk face-to-face. If the message you have is simple and you need to communicate it quickly, use email.
If you need a quick consensus, an email will do. However, discussion getting to a consensus should happen a different way.
Make Your Important Emails Different
Help other people sort through their emails by making it clear which emails from you are vital and which ones are just FYIs. You can either use email flags, or you can tag your subject line. It doesn’t matter what method you use as long as you are consistent. Do not use your “important” tag on all your emails. Try to only use them on the ones you really need an answer to. When you are just sending someone information they don’t need to act on, make that clear by saying “FYI” first thing in the subject line.
Schedule your important emails so they will be read. Schedule your unimportant emails so it doesn’t matter. For an email you must get a response to, you can pick good times that most people are actively engaged. I looked at marketing research to see what times marketers think are peak attention times.
The best day of the week to get people’s attention is Tuesday. Mondays are bad because it’s the first of the week. Fridays are bad because people are looking forward to the weekend. After Tuesday is Thursday, and then Wednesday.
The best time of day to get people’s attention is 10-11am. It avoids their maybe slow morning start and the lunch hour. After that, it’s 2pm. The third best time is 6am, because you can schedule an email to be the first thing in someone’s inbox when they open it.
So, if you really need to get someone’s attention, send the email at 10am on Tuesday morning.
If, however, you have FYI emails you want to send people, choose Friday or Monday, at non-peak times.
An email problem in an organization is a sign of a greater communication problem. You might not be able to fix other people’s communication problems, but you can fix yours. Write your emails so they can be easily read, easily understood, and they don’t require too much from the reader.
Keren Eckberg identified four types of email:
- Self-fulfilling – Tell the receiver something expecting no reply. Use “FYI:”
- Inquiry – You need something from the receiver. The reply is the desired outcome. “Response Needed:”
- Open-Ended Dialog – You want to keep communication lines open for future purposes.
- Action – The goal is an action on the part of the receiver, not a reply. “Action Needed:”
Be concise and to the point. Let your receivers know right away what you need from them and what type of email you are sending so they don’t have to figure it out on their own. If no action is expected, state that no response is necessary.
The US military goes further with this concept of using the subject line.
- “ACTION-” Compulsory for the recipient to take some action.
- “SIGN-” Requires a signature from the recipient.
- “INFO-” This is an informational email only. No response or action is required.
- “DECISION-” This email requires a decision from the recipient.
- “REQUEST-” Seeks permission or approval by the recipient
- “COORD-” Coordination by or with the recipient is needed.
You don’t have to use this exact system, but it’s good to keep in mind. They want to get the who, what, when, where, and why as fast as possible. They follow the concept of BLUF (Bottom Line UpFront), where you answer all the details right there.
Forward Emails Carefully
There are two kinds of forwarding: manual and automatic. If you consistently get emails that you are manually forwarding to other people, you can set up a rule to do that automatically. Even better is get them to be the receiver of the emails. If you have to get a notification, then try to get your name on the BCC.
If you manually forward an email to someone, always add context before you send it. There’s a reason I put this below the communication section. If you can’t add context to a forwarded email about what you expect from the person you’re sending, then you shouldn’t forward it. It just confuses them and demands too much from their attention.
- Hart, M. (2019, July 18). ↵ https://blog.hubspot.com/sales/reply-reply-all-bcc-flowchart
- Turmel, W. (2006, March 2). Phone or Email? Meeting or Wiki? When to Use Which. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/phone-or-email-meeting-or-wiki-when-to-use-which/ ↵
- Gallo, A. (2021, February 12). Stop Email Overload. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2012/02/stop-email-overload-1 ↵
- Eckberg, K. (2011, November). ↵ https://www.slideshare.net/KarenEckberg/effective-email-communication
- Ibid. ↵
- Allen, P. (2016, December 1). Write Email With Maximum Efficiency Using This Military System. Lifehacker. https://lifehacker.com/write-email-with-maximum-efficiency-using-this-military-1789571032 ↵