Let’s say you get 100 e-mails a day. (Everybody wants to “keep you in the loop.”) Do you realize how much of your time that’s eating up? At 3 minutes a piece, it takes you 5 hours to read and respond. 5 solid hours! No wonder you’re having trouble getting things done – you’re stuck in e-mail jail.
Ready to tame this time-sucker? It’s time to practice better word of mouse.
Starting today, let people know that you’re adopting a new policy to help everyone lighten the load. You’ll gradually train others to stop overloading you with e-mails. But it starts with you. The better you send, the better you receive.
Here are the 10 Worst E-Mail Mistakes and how to correct them before sending your next e-mail:
- Using email as your automatic weapon. Don’t impulsively tap away just because e-mail is your favorite method. Pick up the phone or -gasp- actually talk face-to-face with someone again. This can speed things up considerably for both of you. Also, don’t assume that people have read what you sent them 3 hours ago. If you’re sending time-sensitive or critical information, use the dual format: follow your e-mail with a brief, heads-up confirmation call.
- Wimpy or lazy subject lines. Use the subject line to briefly summarize important content. Make it meaningful and timely to the recipient because most of us scan the subject lines in order to decide whether we’ll open, forward or trash incoming messages. Don’t leave the subject line blank or write wimpy, generic subjects like “FYI,” “The File You Requested,” or “Project Update.” Be more specific and actionable. And don’t be lazy and keep replying with the same subject line. Refresh your subject line as the subject changes.
- Burying the lead. It’s rude to force someone to wade through 2 screens of information before you get to the action that you’re requesting. If you want to get things done, say so in the first paragraph. Frontload your e-mail with what matters most. Think newspaper headline. Lead with what’s new and what you want the reader to absorb and act upon.
- Long-winded messages. Try to whittle your e-mail down to one screen or less because most people don’t read past the first page. Plus, we often hit “reply” before we finish reading the whole thing, anyway. If you have several items to convey, create a list. Number or bullet your points so they jump off the screen and are easy for the reader’s brain to process. Be as pithy as possible. Brevity leads to quicker, better responses.
- Habitual High Priority! flagging. We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf, don’t we? Overusing the High Priority! flag makes you that boy. Just because it’s important to you does not make it important to the recipient. Think fire drill. The flag means that information is time-sensitive and needs action straight way. It’s not a status symbol or power play. Don’t use it to convey “The boss’s name is in here, so open it now!” or “We have a new employee!”
- Tone deafness. E-mail is a magnet for misunderstandings. Sometimes we send words that unintentionally rub others the wrong way, depending upon your current frame of mind – or theirs. When people misread your tone, “You’ve got mail!” can morph into “You’ve got trouble!” Gut check your e-mails: how would I interpret this if it landed in my in-box? Also, refrain from sending or responding to emotional e-mails in the workplace. Sending an e-mail is like sending a postcard. If you wouldn’t want it pinned to the bulletin board, don’t send it.
- Copying too many people. Copying lots of people habitually is a heinous crime. Ask yourself: “Why am I sending this to each recipient?” Let people know at the start of the message specifically what they should do with it. Do they need to make a decision? Is action required? Or is it just for awareness? If it’s just to cover your butt, don’t send the copy. As for BCC, (blind carbon copy) its purpose is to protect individuals’ e-mail addresses when sending bulk messages, not to send stealth, sneaky copies. As for “Reply All,” it’s usually an oops! mistake. Rarely do you need to reply to everyone unless you enjoy grandstanding or power trips.
- Grammar and misspellings. Reading from a screen is more difficult than reading from paper. Use standard capitalization and spelling. don’t use all lower case – it signals laziness. DON’T USE ALL CAPS – IT LOOKS LIKE YOU’RE SHOUTING! Make your e-mail personal by adding a greeting at the top. Skip lines between paragraphs. (White space is good.) And always proofread. If an e-mail is really important, print a copy to proof it. You’ll often catch mistakes on paper that you didn’t notice on the screen.
- Forwarding without editing. Don’t just forward e-mails intact if the recipient didn’t intend for their thoughts to be passed along. Do a little triage to make it appropriate for the recipient. Edit out any personal comments that could get the original sender in trouble.
- Sending unwanted attachments. Your goal is to reduce the number of steps that your recipient must take in order to act upon your message, right? Then don’t bog them down. When possible, copy and paste the most relevant passages into the body of the e-mail. Besides, you can bring down an entire e-mail system with a file that’s too large or virus-laden, and some systems automatically remove attachments, anyway.
Finally, a bonus habit since you made it this far. (Promise you won’t hyperventilate at this suggestion?) Stop checking your e-mail obsessively. Turn off the “auto-check” feature that pings every few minutes, and limit yourself to checking e-mail a few times a day. (BlackBerry readers excluded.) You’ll give yourself breathing room to focus and get things done again.
It’s time to stop letting the tail way the dog. Grab control of your send & receive habits and you’ll write your own chapter of Send & Sensibility.