5 Email Mistakes That Even Experienced Executives Make

There's a popular maxim that goes: "With great power comes great responsibility." And though it may be applied to a variety of situations, it can certainly be applied to email. Whether you've recognized this or not, email is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used either to advance or to restrict your career.

Would you like to maximize the power of email and not have it hold you back or lead you into risky situations? One excellent way to start is by managing to avoid the following email blunders.

1. Emailing in the Wrong Situation

Sometimes email can be great. It's a quick solution for contacting a person without having to invest a lot of time into a back-and-forth exchange. Over the years, however, many professionals have come to rely solely on email ... almost entirely ditching telephone calls and face-to-face communication altogether.

This is not the purpose of email. A study by the University of Glasgow and Modeuro Consulting followed the email patterns of International Power, a London-based energy firm, over a substantial period of time and found that the executive team was spending 1.5 hours per day sending roughly 56 emails.

Almost like a form of disease, the over-dependence on email eventually spread throughout the entire organization and began to affect everyone. According to Andrew Killick, founder of Modeuro, organization-wide email saturation can choke a company and force workers to worry more about email output and less about actual work objectives.

Killick estimates that we use email appropriately only about 20 percent of the time. The other 80 percent of email traffic is a waste. This theory was supported by real-world practice when the executives at International Power were asked to think twice before forwarding emails or including multiple recipients.

As a result of the initiative, the firm saw a 54 percent drop in the number of emails sent by executives. A trickle-down effect lead to a 64 percent drop in output from other employees as well.

Ultimately, International Power gained the equivalent of 10,400 hours in a year. Killick estimates that if companies were only to send emails when necessary, the average organization could increase productivity by anywhere from 5 to 30 percent.

2. Keeping a Messy Inbox

It's unbelievable how quickly an email inbox can get overloaded. If you don't consciously focus on keeping it clean and organized, you'll end up with an unmanageable mess. Sadly, few people know how to keep their email inbox clear enough to find what they're looking for.

"The problem with email is that most people use it inappropriately, which is detrimental both to our productivity, and to our well-being," according to Lookeen, an advanced search technology provider. "A messy inbox is a stressful thing to deal with, and an inbox full of unread, old, or useless messages is a hassle to manage and a hindrance to effective work."

Since that's the case, odds are it's time to clean up your inbox so you can find what you're looking for with ease.

Here are a few simple tips:

  • Embrace the trash bin. If you're like most people, you have a hard time sending emails to the trash bin. After all, what if you need to reference that email again in the future? Honestly, most of the time you won't. Become more liberal with what you delete and you'll soon find you didn't need those emails at all. (Plus, you still have a couple of weeks to retrieve them.)

  • Send and archive. If you're using Gmail, the Send & Archive feature is a blessing. When you're done with a conversation and don't want it taking up room in your inbox any longer, this button can be clicked and it will automatically archive the conversation.
  • Use labels. In terms of email organization, labels are your best friends. Create a handful of categories and make sure every email has a place. The more you use these categories, the less clutter you'll have in your inbox.
  • There is no quick fix to email organization. It's something you have to stay on top of continually. However, the more you make it a habit, the less likely things will get out of hand.

    3. Rambling On and On

    Everyone knows that one person who writes excessively long emails. It's even possible you're that person. If so, something needs to change ... and in a hurry.

    One of the top reasons emails don't get read is because they're too long. Writing long emails doesn't make your email more important. It simple makes it distracting.

    "Resist the urge to write long and drawn out messages," says Craig Jarrow, author of Time Management Ninja. "If you find yourself writing long responses, you probably should be having a conversation, not an email writing contest. The shorter and tighter your email messages, the better chance that they will be read, understood and acted upon."

    Email is designed to be as direct as possible. You should get to the point of your message within the first two sentences, and rarely should an email be any more than two or three paragraphs in length.

    Remember, attachments exist for a reason. If there's more information the recipient should receive, refer the person to the attachment. If you can't follow these rules, you probably need to pick up the phone.

    4. Failing to Flag Emails

    How many times have you opened an email and forgotten to respond? As a rule of thumb, you should only open an email when you have time to respond at that moment.

    If it doesn't seem appropriate to respond in the moment -- or something pulls you away -- make sure you either flag the post or use the "mark as unread" feature. It's amazing how quickly you can forget about an email, and a pattern of doing that ultimately makes you seem unprofessional and lazy.

    It's best to create a flag system (or whatever feature your inbox has). For example, a red flag could mean "respond by the end of the day." A yellow flag might signify "respond by Friday at 5pm." A green flag could mean "respond on Monday morning."

    This simple system lowers the risk of overlooking an email after it's been opened.

    5. Not Considering Context

    If you have a strong sense of humor or proclivity for sarcasm, email can be particularly risky. That's because there's little place for humor and sarcasm in email. They can easily be taken out of context and "understood" as something they're not.

    "In professional communications sarcasm should be avoided entirely," says Judith Kallos of Net M@nners. "I've yet to see a situation where using sarcasm enhanced or clarified a situation. Instead it 'rubbed salt in the wound' or was perceived as condescending."

    Remember, email is permanent and you don't have the luxury of backing up your words with facial expressions or tone of voice. Always remember that anything you say will probably be taken seriously and at face value. Also, make sure to include a clarification if there's no other way to word a statement.

    Become an Email Pro

    It's easy to find yourself in a rut and assume the way you've always managed email is the best. But if you can be honest with yourself, that's not necessarily true. Even experienced executives make email mistakes.

    Make yourself hyper-aware of your email habits and take the trouble to avoid potentially damaging blunders.