Managing email overload is a huge drain on our productive hours, yet workplace correspondence almost impossible to avoid. Here’s how to write and manage your emails better – and instil better e-habits into your business peers while you’re at it.
Few days go by without another business news story praising the exec who has ditched the email habit. ‘Emails are passé’, these stories tell us. ‘Emails are almost obsolete, soon to be replaced by project management tools and mobile-everything.’
Well, in my world that’s far from true. Emails have replaced the paper trail as a written record of day-to-day requests, conversations and decisions. Project management tools can be clunky to use, and mobile devices are a pain to wrangle without a keyboard.
So how to manage the daily email onslaught better? Think about your daily e-correspondence as a three-part task – writing, managing and avoiding email.
1. Writing email
First off, managing emails involves actually personalising them to the reader. This can go amiss in large corporate settings, where senders can email open-ended queries to hundreds of colleagues, or forward important requests without any customisation.
Would you bother to read an email with the subject line: ‘Fwd: fwd: re: Auth form requested for PMS scheme’? Nope, you’d very likely assume it was sent in error, and delete it without thinking. To prevent this from happening, write the addressee’s name and a good old personal pronoun or two. Add a personal message revealing that you are in fact human, and not a bot. For example: ‘I know how busy you are, so will follow up later this week with a call to make sure you’re clear on all this.’
Second, use the classic ‘purpose – context – call to action’ structure to keep your email short and task-oriented. This structure specifies what the reader should do after reading (for example, change a meeting time, hurry on a job, or feel reassured something is complete). By short, I mean enough to be read on a laptop or mobile device screen. Add long information as a separate attachment. For tips on writing email subject lines, see my related post, email subject lines people will actually read.
To help your reader manage longer emails that are like short reports, don’t be afraid to use formatting such as lists and bolding. These help the reader scan for the main content blocks.
Finally, remember that emails are legal documents and should be written as carefully as other workplace documents. Always double-check your email for logic, professional tone and correctness.
2. Managing your email in-box
Consider your in-box as a to-do list, and read email only when you know you can respond. Consider closing your email software down at other times.
Write separate email for separate topics, using subject lines that make it easy for your recipient to track down different tasks later. Here are some more tips about managing email:
- Store important messages in folders – Create folders in your email browser for different projects or topics, and archive actioned correspondence within these folders.
- Attach files first – If you’re prone to forgetting attachments, attach them before your compose the message.
- Avoid forwarding email – But if you do forward an email, make sure that any quoted text does not contain confidential or indiscreet remarks. Tidy up return marks, and delete personal or confidential remarks before forwarding.
3. Avoiding email
Avoid writing email to initiate open-ended discussions. Phone the person instead, or arrange to meet. Those working in large organisations may want to consider auto responses to certain situations, such as being emailed at certain times or in generic groups.
A good auto response I’ve come across for the former scenario is: ‘Thank you for your email. I am on a mission to improve productivity by minimising emails, and will respond between 1 – 2pm and 5 – 6pm daily. If the matter is urgent, please call on my mobile.’
And for the latter scenario, there’s this one: ‘This is a courtesy email to let you know I may not respond to all emails I am copied on. If your matter is urgent, please contact me on (etc).’