I knew we’d reached a crisis point when my octogenarian mom said to me a couple of years ago after dinner out, “I need to get home and do email.” What was once a productivity boost has become a bane for even the most ambitious achievers.
Here are a few best practices:
Forget the Once-Upon-a-Time Structure
Think first, then write. Summarize the situation, your opinion, or your “news” in your opening sentence. You’ll be surprised how many details will become totally unnecessary. (Such details writers often think “provide background” serve only to distract and confuse their readers.)
Start With a Resolution
If you’re writing to point out a problem, don’t simply describe the problem and offer options and suggestions, leaving it to your recipient to start the resolution process. Instead, point out the problem, and immediately state the resolution you consider the best. Then all the other person has to do is respond with agreement. Only if they disagree will they need to write a lengthy email in response.
Unravel the Thread First
When answering emails, you’ll frequently see three or four emails from the same person. Read all of them before replying to any. Often when you get to the end of the line, some of the details have been overcome by other events. Occasionally, after unraveling the thread, you can delete it altogether without a reply.
Limit Email Hours to Non-Peak Slots
The best time to handle email varies from person to person, depending on their schedule. For some people, that’s the first thing in the morning before they start their routine day out of the office. For others, the best time is at the end of the day before they go home for the evening. For some, mid-day before or after lunch works best. Others check email twice a day—for example, mid-day and evening. Whatever you choose, don’t babysit your email, so that you’re letting it interrupt and distract you all day.
Make Headlines Specific; Add the Action
Headlines such as “FRW Meeting Agenda” lead to confusion. As a reader of that email, these questions come to mind: Is the agenda attached? Should I review the agenda before the meeting and get back to you with items to add? Are you sending me this agenda because I need to prepare for the meeting discussion in some way? Are you asking me to review it and get back to you with input, feedback, approval? Make your headlines as specific as possible, and put the primary words at the beginning.
Stop Sending Stream-of-Conscious Emails
When you send emails just as fragmented ideas pop into your mind at midnight, you’ll likely receive a similarly rambling, half-baked response. Instead, make yourself a quick note and write a clear, complete email the next day with all the details that the person will need to handle the entire situation. Otherwise, you’ll end up writing seven emails to clean up the mess.
Remember that you’re not only wasting YOUR time with poor email habits, but your reader’s time as well.