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Stop the email madness!

The fact that email is such a cheap and convenient means of communication has made it so pervasive that it has become a huge problem. Think about the amount of email you deal with in a day. Now think about how much of that is absolutely necessary and has actually made you more productive?

The Problem

Email actually takes longer to “read” than it does to write. Think about this for a moment. Yes, reading is faster than writing, but with email, you have some added factors:

  • The recipient is usually expected to reply
  • Before an email can be dealt with, the inbox need to be scanned and a decision made about whether to open a mail (And then actually open that mail)
  • It is easy to CC lots of people
  • It’s easy to copy and paste text into the mail. It takes a few seconds to paste the text, but it takes time to read
  • It’s easy to add links to an email that goes to external resources that need to be viewed or read

What makes this even worse is that in dealing with email, we end up creating more email to be dealt with, just adding to this vicious circle of time wasting.

The Solution

I think the solution is threefold:

  1. Should you send an email?
  2. Who should you send the email to?
  3. How do you respect the recipients time?

Lets look at each of these in more detail

Should you send an email?

Would this be better done using another means of communication? Anything open-ended or needing discussion tends to do badly as an email. You end up sending 16 emails back and forth and still don’t manage to get consensus.

Cut out gratuitous responses. If you need to say thanks (or acknowledge receipt of a mail, etc), put the entire message in the subject followed by EOM (or End Of Message) so the recipient knows they don’t need to open the mail.

Are you angry (or frustrated, annoyed, depressed, etc)? If you are, save it as a draft and look at it again in an hour.

Is it spam? I consider spam pretty much anything that I did not ask for. If it is, think very carefully about sending it.

Finally, would you pay a dollar to send this email? If not, seriously reconsider sending it.

Who should you send the email to?

Is it going to a group of people? If yes, Have you carefully considered who is on your list of recipients? If you are replying, do you need to reply to all the original recipients?

Are any of the recipients blind copied? If so, why? How would the other recipients feel if they found out?

If you left anybody of this list, would they complain about not getting this mail? If not, take them off.

Have you corresponded with this person before? Not just sent them an email, really corresponded? Have you at the very least received a reply to an email, or spoken to them personally? If not, carefully consider whether they care about what you are about to send.

Respect the recipients time

This is the golden rule. If you only do this one thing, you will probably already make a big difference. Essentially, it is your responsibility to make sure that you minimize the time needed to respond to your mail, even if it means taking longer to compose your email.

Keep the mail as short as possible and use short simple sentences. Also make sure that your subject line is clear and concise. The recipient should know what your mail is about after looking at your subject.

If the message is short enough to fit in the subject, put it there followed by an EOM or End of message marker so the recipient knows they don’t need to open it. Likewise, if it is purely for information, maybe start the subject with FYI or end the mail with “No need to respond”.

Think about what you are quoting. Don’t quote the full text of the last 3 messages in the conversation if you are only replying to one question in the last mail.

On the other hand, make sure that you do quote enough for the recipient to understand the context. An email that says “Sure, no problem” with no quoted text might not mean a lot.

Something simple you can do is to make the formatting as easy as possible:

  • Use a simple black font at a normal size.
  • Remove all animated images.
  • Remove the long legal disclaimer. Do you honestly need it?
  • Remove any unnecessary attachments.

Speaking of attachments, be very careful with them. If the contents of the attachment could be put in the body of the email, rather put it there. Also, if you need to add any links, make sure you add them as text in the body of the email so that they are clickable or at least easy to copy. Also don’t attach really big files – Rather use a service that lets you upload it somewhere else and just add the link to the mail (Have a look at dropbox). Let the recipient decide if they want to download the attachment.

I don’t know if this is going far enough, but this should be enough to start taking back control of our inboxes.