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Email Etiquette for the Super-Busy

It's time to take a leaner, meaner approach to email. We lay out 10 simple tips for making email more efficient, and more actionable.

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 Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (8)
  • Herbert Reininger

    These are all great points, and we could probably add a few more.

    But what about the BIG elephant (question) in the room? Is email really the best way to effectively communicate? If not, what alternatives are available, or on the horizon?

  • Josh Cousineau

    I try to answer them as soon as they come in so they don’t ‘pile’ up. The ones that can have short answers I try to address right away, if they need thought or time then I will let them know that I plan to address it soon.

    Thanks for this post.

  • Gergo Csikos | 12DSGN

    Insightful tips here. I try to use most of these during my day-to-day work, they seem common sense to me.

    But I must add that as most partners around are less open to challenge the SQ they do little actual improvement on the grander scheme of managing communication with various projects as i keep receiving endless ques of one-word replies and unclear commentary.

    Would be interesting to read about HOW TO INFLUENCE people to become more open to try new techniques and methods.

  • Holly

    I like the tip about don’t send thank you e-mails.. I’ve stopped this and found a great product to use instead, quick, easy, affordable and it makes an impact on those who receive it… I found it through

    Hope this helps others like it has helped me

  • Melissa T.

    I would add, resist the temptation to fire off an email every time you have a thought – you can end up bombing someone else’s email in-box. Try to consolidate emails when it makes sense to do so. And if you have a lot of questions for one person, perhaps a phone call would be best?

  • Gary

    These are good points I can incorporate into my classes. We spend part of a class discussing email and things to consider. Another good tip is consider the audience. Many times students will send their professor a message, “i will not b in class what will u cover.” If you send a business reply to a customer like this and they are from the traditional generation, you might lose business from that customer.

  • jkglei

    Good point, Gary. Conciseness certainly shouldn’t come at the expense of behaving professionally. They have to go hand in hand.

  • jkglei

    Couldn’t agree more on both points, Melissa.

  • jkglei

    I think email is just one tool in our communication arsenal. And one that’s easy to use for the wrong reasons – to avoid a more confrontational (but necessary) phone call for instance. Rather than choose ONE communication channel, I think we have to constantly be considering how we’re using all of our options, and select which to use based on the task. It’s a lot of work, but “communication management” is becoming a huge part of being an organized and effective creative professional. For some more thought on this, check out Scott’s tip on the Five Levels of Communication:

  • Bryan Fuhr

    A great subject with a lot of great tips. But I’m left longing for one more. It has to do with proper etiquette responding to email. It’s wrong not to respond. And it’s very common. Imagine doing that in person. No one would ever start a conversation!

    One solution I use in such circumstances is to let the reader know what kind of response I want. Another is to let people know when I’m not expecting a response. It avoids clutter, and it avoids hurt feelings.

  • Heidi Kikoler

    Good tips! I would add that a detailed subject line is helpful as it can clearly signal what type of response is required. Also helps the receiver to prioritize what to open first.

  • jeannemale

    Strong list, Jocelyn – I’m sure many readers were nodding in agreement! Frankly, I learned most of them in the school of corporate hard knocks and wish everyone would follow your suggestions. In fact, I’m planning to post a link on the LinkedIn JobLife Architects group.

    Since we are speaking of etiquette: there are times when we should send a “thanks”. If that’s all that needs to be said, it can be as simple as the word, “thanks” in the subject line followed by EOM for “end of message”.

  • jkglei

    That’s a great tip. I often find myself updating Subject Lines on long email threads as the topic evolves. It helps keep things on track, and (hopefully) prevents people from zoning out when they see the same subject line in their inbox again and again.

  • Hunt-anthony

    Great set of tips. Disagree with the last one though.

  • K-eM

    Absolutely agree with #10. I have found myself part of Reply All emails that either have nothing to do with me after the first round or start including people along the way who don’t need to be bothered by it, but are caught up in the general panic/furor even though the problem is already being solved.

  • Kevin Kaiser

    One practice that’s worked well for me is putting a “lead in” tag in my subject lines. For example, a couple that I use frequently are:

    – FYI: [subject]

    – ACTION NEEDED: [subject]

    My team members know they can set a rule to send “FYI” emails to a folder that they can review at their convenience, and the ACTION NEEDED line tells them which are urgent. It’s very simple, but has made our communication between us much more effective.

    Fantastic article. I found some new gems here that I’m going to start using today. Thanks, Jocelyn!

  • bulletproofbra

    Good post.

    I tend to use the subject lines to get as much info in as possible. Starting a subject with APPROVAL REQUESTED or FYI helps everyone.

    However, I disagree with the lack of thanks. Sometimes the sender wants to know that you got the message before they can cross it off their lists. It’s simple to just put in the response subject line with an “end of message” notation so there’s no confusion. Knowing that the full response is in the header means that they don’t have to read the whole email.

    Thanks [original subject line] -eom
    APPROVED [original subject line] -eom
    Delegating to ____ [original subject line] -eom

  • BaldyBloke

    Good post Jocelyn.

    One tip I always try to practice with email, not always with great success, is; one email, one subject. It’s easier to get a reponse that way. Don’t know if this works for others?

  • Penelope Rock

    I often make my email as concise as possible and direct to the point. I, as a sender happens to understand that I’m just asking for the reader time and effort to read my email, so I make it concise. Other things like “don’t send thanks emails” is a new info to me. Anyway, thanks for the insight, eh.

  • Linda Brennan

    Totally agree. As a production person in an online agency I always make sure that the subject line contains the client + project + what the action is. I get a lot of emails titled “website” or “copy”. It helps when the subject line is more specific.

  • Tony

    I believe a thanks email is appropriate is you qualify why you are thankful, it’s good to know for the recipient. A single word “Thanks!” email can be considered a waste. A one-two sentence email explaining, “Thanks, that was very helpful, i think that is going to save me a lot of time for getting to Point B.”, works better to convey gratefulness and understanding that yes, the information and time taken by the sender was well worth it.

  • jkglei

    There have been a few comments about no. 8 – the appropriateness of “Thanks” emails. To clarify, I was referring quite literally to dispensing with one-word “thanks” emails. Not more substantive emails showing appreciation, which are certainly necessary in some instances! As with everything, it depends on the circumstances: for internal communications and those with close colleagues, this streamlining makes sense; with an important client, you would probably want to take a different approach.

  • ibjhb

    Totally disagree on the reply to all. I don’t this people use it enough. However if you shouldn’t be on the thread, don’t just receive all the emails, ask to be removed.

  • André Silva

    Addition to point 9, never send an email with only smileys. Someday I sent an email apologizing from a mistake I made in a work, and I received back a simple ” 🙂 ” as response (I don’t know the person, so I really don’t know what he/she means with that…).

    “A picture worth’s for a thousand words”, but sometimes you only need one or two!

  • Hadaly

    I completely agree on #5. I always include deadlines, often in the subject line, e.g. Action Needed by 1/15: followed by the subject.

    I have to disagree a bit on number 10, however. While I have received many reply all responses that I definitely didn’t need, I work for a national organization with offices all over the country. Reply all is often the best way to keep everyone in the loop on a conversation with the least amount of work.

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