Email Etiquette for the Super-Busy

In a recent blog post, venture capitalist Fred Wilson talked about his ongoing struggle with email management and the various solutions he’s tried, concluding: “Every time I make a productivity gain, the volume eventually overwhelms me.” It’s a familiar problem. We’re all extremely busy, and we all get too much email. So what to do?

It’s time for a more mindful approach, one that fully embraces a “less is more” strategy. To help you get started, we’ve assembled a cheat sheet of our email best practices. And, trust us, it’s not just about being more polite, it’s about being more efficient and getting the responses you need.

1. Be concise.

Do you like getting long emails? No? No one does. A good rule of thumb is to strive to keep emails to one line or less. If they can’t be that short, challenge yourself to keep them as concise as humanly possible. Your contact is just as likely to be checking the message on a smartphone as on a desktop computer, and shorter is easier to digest – which means you’re more likely to get a response.

2. Communicate “action steps” first, not last.

It’s standard practice to begin an email by summarizing what happened at a meeting or during a phone conversation, then following on with any “action steps” that emerged. But this makes it easy for the most important information to get lost in the shuffle. By reversing this order – and listing actions steps first and foremost – you keep the attention on the items you want to draw attention to.

3. Number your questions.

This is Email 101. If you’re not doing it already, it should be standard protocol to break out multiple points or questions as numbered items in all email correspondence. If you don’t, you risk having that customer or client only respond to the first question that happens to catch their eye. (And now you have to write another email to ask them about it again.)

A good rule of thumb is to strive to keep emails to one line or less.

4. Make the way forward clear.

Emails that offer nothing but a “What do you think about X…?” are generally ineffectual. Always be proactive and take the lead in your communications so that the way forward is completely clear. If you’re proposing a deal, do a bullet-pointed outline of the parameters from the get-go. If you want to “run something by” a superior, share your approach and ask them if they agree. They may not, but giving them a starting point, something to react to, is MUCH more likely to get a response than waiting for someone else to make the first move.

5. Include deadlines.

Some people think that handing out deadlines can seem dictatorial. On the contrary, I’ve noticed that successful busy people welcome a deadline. It helps them integrate the tasks into their schedule. If a response from them is imperative, politely include a deadline: “For the project to stay on track, I need a response from you by 1/18.” If a response is optional, communicate that as well: “If I don’t hear back from you by 1/18, I’ll proceed with the solution I’ve proposed.”

6. Use “FYI” for emails that have no actionable information.

Some emails need to be shared to keep everyone in the loop. But non-actionable correspondence should be labeled as such – so that it can be prioritized accordingly. At the Behance office, we use a simple “FYI” tag at the top of all emails that contain information that you are not required to act on. It allows for easy filtering of non-actionable emails, whether by scanning visually or setting up a rule in your email client.

7. Tell them that you’ll get to it later.

If someone sends you an urgent email that you can’t get to today (or this week, or this month), write them a quick note to let them know, specifically, when you will get to it. You’ll quell their anxiety, and save yourself a future nagging email from them. It also preserves goodwill: Explaining now why you won’t get to something until later is much more effective than apologizing later.

Non-actionable correspondence should be labeled as such – so that it can be prioritized accordingly.

8. Use expressive and compelling subject lines.

We all skim our inboxes, deciding what to read now, and what to read later. The subject line is a key place to indicate importance and time sensitivity, using leaders like “FOR APPROVAL:” or “SCHEDULING REQUEST:” or “FYI:” to indicate what action is or is not needed. It’s useful to think of subject lines like newspaper (or blog) headlines – they should be expressive and compelling. It’s your prime chance to hook the reader in.

9. Never send an angry or contentious email.

Email is a severely limited medium when it comes to conveying tone, which is why angry emails are never a good idea. More often than not, they just create more anxiety – and more email. Occasionally, writing an angry email can be therapeutic. If this is the case, get it off your chest, and then delete the email. When a confrontation is brewing, a conversation in person or on the phone is almost always best. Emails leave too much room for misunderstanding.

10. Never “reply all” (unless you absolutely must).

If you’ve received an email sent to a large group of people, do your best to avoid replying to all when you respond. If that person was qualified to send the email, typically they can be relied on to be the point person who collates the responses. Keep in mind: If using the “reply all” feature really seems necessary, you are probably having a conversation that would be better (and more efficiently) had face-to-face.

What’s Your Approach?

How do you keep email manageable?What are your strategies for ensuring a prompt reply?

More insights on: Email Strategy

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
load comments (3)
  • tracy a.

    RE: #8
    as an editor of an online arts magazine who receives 100s of emails a week from various galleries and artists, i am a fan of the “thanks, we got it” one-liner; it lets them know we care, even if it clutters their inbox … it’s not a toss-off; depending on the client, and whether or not i had to solicit them to clue us into their events (or to acknowledge that a new e-relationship is working), the “thanks”-only reply is quite useful. they can delete it quickly and not have to requery about whether we have received their exhibition listing or giant-file images, etc.

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  • Catalyst Consulting

    Put “Thanks”, “FYI” , “No Reply Needed” or other short message in the subject line. That way, the reader can see your message when scrolling through – no need to click to open.

  • David

    Last month my cat took a nap on my laptop, deleting 518 emails. Best thing that ever happened to me.

  • Squashy

    Generally people ignore the significant power of the subject line, which should always convey the gist of the message and save readers time by conveying whether or not they need to read and/or reply soon. This becomes problematic when the subject line remains but the person who originated the email changes the topic; and becomes even more problematic when new people are added to the discussion. After some time, often one ends up discussing something that is unrelated to the topic in the subject line. I find this to be annoying, so to fix it I change the text in the subject line to be about the topic being discussed, and write in the message body: “note CHANGE of SUBJECT line”.

  • Stucky

    Wonderful post…

  • jkglei

    Editor’s Note: Based on some great feedback in the comments, we’ve updated this piece — removing the original “Don’t send Thanks!” emails, and replacing it with the No. 8 point on subject lines. The original suggestion about not cluttering inboxes up with “thanks!” emails is relevant for colleagues you see on the daily and who trust you implicitly, but (as many pointed out) isn’t particularly good advice for client relationships and people who don’t know you well. In its place, we added in the subject lines point, which we originally overlooked, based on a bunch of good notes from commenters. Thanks everyone!

  • Rsa course

    This is great too, but I would be more comfortable at using clear subjects regardless of how long it is… It basically tells the reader/recipient if the email is worth reading or not. But of course yes, we need to have it written short.

  • Massimo Benedetti

    I think is not usefull include (if is not necessary) some documents (Word, pdf…and so on)with ‘explanation’ of e-mail content. The e-mail itself must be compelling! Great Post! thank you.

  • Mike Strand

    Regarding non-actionable or FYI email, I think people should leverage micro-blogging enterprise solutions for these types of communications instead of email.

  • Ben

    email is for adults.  Use Twitter.  Then it has to be one line or less.

  • Mariaj Taj

    Thank you. This was a good read. I would like to know more about email etiquette across cultures. Could you share some good tips on that? I live in Nairobi Kenya and work with teams based in the US, Korea and other parts of the world. Does this etiquette change across cultures? MT.

  • Sparklyscotty

    Great article.  I use Gmail and have a number of labels, filters and star systems to automatically prioritize my emails.  I also use reply templates for answer common questions.

  • Shailendra Singh

    A related article that I wrote last month on the same topic with a specific focus on Operations.
    http://www.opsedia.com/blog/13
    Have added a link to this article.

  • Eddie Potros

    I do #9 quite often and I know it’s really not a good thing to do but some clients really need to hear it.
    Great article and has to be on my mind from now on!

  • Beantowngal

    If an email turns into a thread…and the subject changes…I am most attentive to revise the subject line to describe the new content.  How many of us have been involved at the start of a thread on one topic…and then somehow it takes a completely different direction?   I also hate receiving emails with vague Subject Lines – Like: “I was just thinking”….or “Add to Agenda”….the agenda of what????  The more specific the email Subject Line the easier it will be when you have to search for it a month later for information.  :-)

  • Tammy Redmon

    Great article with excellent points to ponder. Perhaps my favorite point is “Always be proactive and take the lead in your communications so that the way forward is completely clear.” That is one which we can apply to all our communication efforts.

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  • Joel Cheuoua

    These are great tips for managing and sending emails in a professional, business-like oriented relationship. Thanks for sharing.

    When the communication is a bit more personal, even if it’s still not necessarily friendly or intimate (think a colleague/partner invites you to a dinner) it feels like it gets trickier. How to stay on the emotional side while going for the jugular and be as short and concise as possible?One good inspiration may be the success of Facebook: most of the personal communication is image based. Instead of communicating with words, users communicate with photos and visuals. It’s “short” in a sense, yet it keeps it’s emotional touch.There’s a big hurdle to adapt that to an email-based correspondence … who has time to find cute pictures or smileys AND cut/paste in an email OR format it nicely in html? These are, instances where I’d say that sharing on Social Networks such as Facebook, or Google+, or to an certain extent on Twitter have to replace communication on email to achieve a similar goal of efficiency.

  • Monte needham

    I have been trying to sign into your little program here and am being denied each time if most of us or a lot us are denied it will no longer be the 99%,don’t you think?

  • Adela1201

     This is okay but what do I do when my boss keeps sending all caps emails with six exclamation marks? I don’t know how to take it. If she is just excited or is she yelling at me for no founded reason? How do I approach her in regards to her email etiquette? I think its very unprofessional. 

  • Monte needham

    you people sure you are 99% because you are way to sbobby and uptight and suspicious for the likes of someone like me.Who the hell do you jerks represent.

  • Monte needham

    what???

  • Omar Katanani

    I totally agree with points 1 to 9, but not 10.
    I think one must always click on reply-all.. You never know why the sender copied these people in the first place…

  • Houston Web Designers

    These are great tips for observing proper email etiquette. These pieces of information are truly helpful to a lot of people. Thanks for sharing a very informative article.

  • Chee Wong

    Thanks for this great list.

    I would also like to add one/two more: don’t use read receipts and the high priority flag – it doesn’t work.

    With teleworking & working flexible hours gaining popularity, the issue of sending emails after hours (weekends & evenings) should also be considered. I wrote about this very topic in a read blog post.

  • http://twitter.com/saaaaaam Sam

    Completely disagree. Typing “thanks” or “regards” or “best” or “best regards” or “warmest kindest best regards” at the bottom of an email is such outdated nonsense. An email is not a letter. You know exactly who you are talking to, and signing off is completely wasteful and pointless, unless it’s your first contact with that person.

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  • Philipp Conrad Mayer

    You should check out SquadMail (www.squadmail.com) which works like “Dropbox for email” and lets you share synchronized gmail labels (or email folders) with others.

    Instead of forwarding emails or CCing your entire team on each email, simply apply a shared label to as many emails as you’d like and they’ll show up in just the right place in your collaborators’ inbox.

    Additionally, each label gets its own email address that you can for example use to message groups of people or to receive automated emails such as newsletters or social network notifications.

    Last but not least, SquadMail lets you synchronize your labels with Dropbox and automatically extracts attachments and uploads them to the cloud storage.

  • Leah

    I completely agree. It’s very frustrating and creates more work when someone does not reply to everyone on the thread.

  • Carlos

    This the dumbest thing ive ever heard.

  • brandi marino

    OMG this was amazing. Thank you!

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