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e-mail is one of today’s biggest drains on our time at work.  This post aims to help you save at least half of that time.

e-mail is arguably a necessary evil – despite everyone from Workplace to WhatsApp to under 30s arguing it is in fact redundant.   Assuming you can’t ignore it, the first step in mastering it is to get real and accept it

Think about this; how many real e-mails do you receive per day?  Most people I ask, say about 100.  I’ll knock 40% of that and assume it’s 60.  Assuming you will spend 3 minutes on average per mail, that 60 mails turns into 3 hours work.  Yep, that’s 3 hours exclusively on e-mail just to stay still.  To put it another way, if you don’t spend 3 whole hours on e-mail per day you will fall behind.

So, acknowledging that e-mail is here to stay and that it currently knocks 3 hours per day everyday out of our lives, let’s focus on how to reduce that time.

Reduce it by ensuring that you communicate more effectively –  get the point across as efficiently as possible, don’t make the reader open a mail unnecessarily and ensure that the mail is instantly understood by individual reader.

Do the following 8 things when writing mails.

  • Summarise don’t describe in the subject line.  Use the subject line to get across as much as possible about the mail.  Where possible put the key action and deadline in the title.

e.g. DO:  ‘4 things we will now all do at every meeting’,   NOT: ‘a mail about meetings’

  • Put the entire mail in one sentence in the subject line, with (nft) for No Further Text at the end.  This is what to do if you take point 1 above to heart and get the whole mail into the subject line.

e.g.  3pm meeting moved from Sunshine to Moonlight, Can you bring a projector ?(nft); Project Driftwood approved, please set up kick-off meeting within next 2 wks with your team (nft)

  • Use standardised action-oriented beginnings to subject lines.  The meaning of each is self evident.  It is however, important to remain consistent so that recipients get used to what they mean.  Ultimately others may adopt them too (hey, they could read this post).

FOR ACTION BY xx/xx,  

FOR URGENT ACTION,  

FOR FEEDBACK BY xx/xx,  

FOR URGENT FEEDBACK,

DECISION NEEDED BY xx/xx

e.g. FOR ACTION BY 12/09:  Increased sales targets to be deployed to sales teams; FOR FEEDBACK BY 12/09: Marketing Communications plan for 2017; DECISION NEEDED BY FRI am: Go/ No Go project Driftwood.

  • Don’t say hello (or goodbye).  Hello and other greetings are just a waste of time.  People should appreciate you helping them get on with their work and they should do you the same service.  You should ensure you have a standard, adequate automated signature.
  • Give context to the mail.   When responding to one or a chain of mails don’t force the reader to read through several different mails to understand what the context is.  Give it to them in your mail and then briefly answer it.  Of course the subject line alone may serve to do this.

e.g.  ‘you asked about options on launching project Driftwood.  I suggest starting in Japan for the following listed reasons.

  • Keep to 1 page, ideally much less.  Many people use reading panes to screen mail. Help them (and everyone else) by having the vast majority or the mail – if not all of it – in the first two paragraphs or equivalent.  Regardless, mails over 1 page are unlikely to be read anyway.
  • Bold key messages in the mail – not just titles but what the mail means to communicate.  The idea is that people will be able to scan only the bold words and understand the entire mail.
  • Specify what each addressee is to do.  Use an ‘@’ to specify at the beginning what each person in the [to:] section is to do.  Consider carefully whether it is necessary to [cc:] anyone at all.

e.g. @Amy – you will lead this project, @Becky & @Clara – action items for both of you, @Mick – your help will be needed for bookings and travel.

note on politeness – Thousands (yes thousands) of hours of work have been wasted wading through paragraphs of pleasantries which are frankly a complete waste of time.  Surely it is more polite not to waste a colleges time by leaving out unnecessary text.  I have been warned not to take this approach – especially in continental European countries – but they are all wrong!  A concession I allow is to include the below line in the standard signature to e-mails – it links  to this article.

“here’s why you might find this e-mail abrupt”

Longer and probably better written articles on this topic are this by Stever Robbins (which was some early inspiration for this article) and this HBR article by Kabir Sehgal. Go and read them, click on an ad and maybe buy something … perhaps instead of 3 e-mails.

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