For many, email is a burden. Average knowledge workers spend roughly 30 percent of their work week writing or reading email. Constantly checking and clearing our inboxes fractures our schedules, decreases productivity and causes stress. Too often, we have the feeling that communicating prevents us from getting real work done. Of course, avoiding email altogether is tempting but hardly a viable solution. To make things easier for you, we have selected six general tips and three specific approaches for handling email better.
Time block – Schedule specific times for handling your email to avoid fracturing your day. Try once or twice a day.
No waste – Brevity increases the likelyhood of being read. For an exception, see approach 1 below.
Be active – Preferring an active voice to a passive one increases shortness and often clarity. Instead of “The email was send.” write “I sent the email.”
Don’t spread – If possible, avoid putting people in your CC to prevent additional and mostly unnecessary communication.
Don’t be lazy – Interrupting a colleague for an information that you can find out on your own generally creates more waste (of time and attention) than it intends to.
Use your voice – A phone call is often quicker and interrupts less if done right.
Approach 1 – Process oriented emails IN A NUTSHELL: Since the main productivity loss by email is often caused by constantly checking your inbox, composing emails that foresee and prevent further communication is highly advised.
PRO: Reduces the amount of emails you receive and therefore minimizes how often you have to check your inbox. CON: Messages take longer to write.
HOW IT WORKS: Identify the goal of an email conversation that is beginning. Come up with a process that helps to achieve this goal and minimizes back and forth massaging. Explain that process in your email.
EXAMPLE: Let’s say you receive a vague “Hey Ben, let’s discuss the increasing staff turnover soon!”. Now, stay away from a quick “Sure. When do you want to meet?” – which would presumably start a longer, ping-pong process of scheduling. Instead, outline the options and shorten the process of figuring out when and where to meet: “Great idea. I could come over to your office tomorrow at 2pm. Apart from that, I could block an hour either on Thursday or Friday also at 2pm. Let me know if one of these slots works for you. If not, give me a call under 030/… during my usual office hours and we will figure something out that is good for both of us.”
Approach 2 – Military type emails IN A NUTSHELL: In the subject, use key words for the action(s) required from the recipient; then start the email with its bottom line followed by the specifics.
PRO: Clarity, brevity and a template that is easy to follow. CON: Conversations might sound a bit stern and formulaic in the beginning.
HOW IT WORKS: To clarify the purpose of the email as fast as possible, put the action required from the recipient in the subject and specify it. Keywords for required actions could be: INFO, SIGN, DECISION, REQUEST, COORD, PITCH and ACTION. Then start the actual email with a short summary of its contents, containing the what, who, when, where and why. By starting with a bottom line, the recipient will know quickly how the content affects him/her without having to read all the specifics. After this summary state the relevant background information.
[Subject] INFO – Advanced Training Budget 2018
BOTTOM LINE: The board has passed the budget for advanced training: Starting in January 2018, every employee has a yearly budget of 2.000€ for training programs.
– The company has to stay competitive and needs new skills, knowledge and a better energy management of its employees.
– The staff turnover was to high and missing training programs were among the reasons leaving personal complained about most.
Approach 3 – Boss type emails IN A NUTSHELL: Write in one sentence maximum.
PRO: Drastically reduces the time for writing and reading. CON: Too short and imprecise in many cases. Sounds unpolite and gruff.
HOW IT WORKS: Be as terse as possible, i.e. try to fit everything in one sentence or possibly less, thus avoiding any phrases of civility and any background information. And not putting anyone in the CC leads to a more personalized tone (at least) and does not arouse additional communication.
BOTTOM LINE: To “compose” emails like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates might be good for an experiment and will definitely save you a lot of time, but we propose that being this laconic should be left to CEOs. Instead, go for a military type email above. Or, if you feel really playful, talk to your colleagues about starting it as an experiment. But only internally.
If you want to learn more Berlin Alley offers you many more practical insights, tips and individual guidance on how to handle your daily email – to increase productivity, save time and reduce a lot of stress.