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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)
  • Chris

    My tip is to always cc myself on all emails that I need to follow up on. That way they can be seen in my in box

  • Noel Tanks

    You can always send a read request with your email.

  • Atul Raut

    Good Practise.. I do follow the same.. there is a easy way to it in Outlook.. we can create a rule to send a copy of the email being sent to the inbox.. This way you don’t need to explicitly copy yourself.. flipside is that all the emails that you send comes back to your inbox.

  • Douglas

    #8 is BAD advice. People that send me ‘Thanks’ emails get more of my time when they need it. It’s just that simple.

  • Gauthier

    Your sent mails are already saved even if you don’t Cc yourself, why have two copies of a single mail? Outlook lets you create a search folder that includes all mail, both received and sent. This “all mail” search folder can even be sorted by conversation, so you can follow a thread as if it were a forum, almost as if it were gmail’s threaded conversation view.

  • Yvonne Frindle

    On the other hand, it’s another point of etiquette (and much more helpful to a recipient) that messages about *distinctly different topics* be sent in separate messages. That way the sender can give each message a clear and meaningful subject line, filing is easier for the recipient and if each topic addressed needs to be handled according to different timeframes or shared with different groups of people then it’s easy to do that if it’s in its own email.

    Agree, though, that sending off thoughts about a single topic in dribs and drabs is very annoying for a recipient.

  • jkglei

    I responded on this point earlier on the thread, Douglas. I think I should have been more precise: For colleagues who you have constant dialogue & a trust level with, I don’t think they’re necessary. With clients and other more sensitive relationships, we must manage more carefully and “thanks” emails can be crucial.

  • Charles

    10. Never “reply all” (unless you absolutely must).
    And unless you and all your recipients are on Gmail.
    – Gmail has a conversation view.
    – Gmail allow to mute conversations.

  • Rich

    The #6 suggestion to use “FYI” is one I tend to avoid. Numerous people have said that if an email is marked “FYI” they will not bother reading it at all. So if I’m about to send some content that I would consider an “FYI”, then I approach it in one of two ways:
    1 – decide that I may not need to send it at all
    2 – decide this person really needs the information, make it concise, send it, but don’t mark it FYI

  • monica seeley

    There is more you can do to further reduce the email overload. Developing reliable processes to keep track of the emails you decide to deal with later. Educate your colleagues to send you less email and take you off their distribution lists.

  • monica seeley

    Doesn’t that just contribute further to the volume of email traffic into your inbox? Have you tried flag, creating a calendar/task etc?

  • monica seeley

    It such a personal think – saying thank you, but my advice is only do it when the person has gone the extra mile.

  • Douglas

    Hi Jocelyn, I didn’t notice your earlier comment because the oldest comments where at the bottom and I didn’t read that far. Which is exactly what principle #2 above is so important! (Not that your comment was an action point).

    Anyway, I suppose people will find out who their sensitive relationships are (like me) when they stop saying ‘thanks’.

  • Douglas

    It’s such a personal thing – receving a thank you. My advice is to not underestimate how far ‘thanks’ can take you.

    It’s probably clear to everyone by now that my my primary love-language is: ‘Words of Affirmation’!


  • Charlie Arehart

    I’m surprised to see no one comment in contention with point #1. “One line or less”? Come on, email isn’t twitter (and sadly, twitter is making more and more people think that one line “is enough” for communication.) Consider this: at least 80% of the comments so far have been more than one line. Why should email be different? Sure, ok, sometimes some people are reading it on mobile devices. But must we all presume that for all readers?

  • csc3

    Clean out your inbox. Delete old messages.

    Pick up the phone or use instant messaging for short questions.

    When replying, you don’t always need to include the previous message.

  • Julie

    One of my pet peeves is people who send ONE email with a question that requires an answer by a particular deadline–but they don’t tell you the deadline. So I put it to the bottom of my to-do list and respond a day or two later, only to be told “oh, when I didn’t hear from you I thought you weren’t interested/didn’t want the job/etc. so I went elsewhere.”

    Either include a deadline for a response–or be prepared to follow-up with me! Your email isn’t the only one in my inbox!

    Also, please God, do not cc me on every single email issuing from your computer. Other than covering your butt, is there a REAL reason I need to be included in the correspondence? Probably not, so please please please: don’t.

  • kiil

    Before forwarding check the e-mails “to” field to make sure that your intended recipient has not already received it.

  • jkglei

    I say STRIVE for one line or less, because the idea is to seriously consider how wordy you are being. I often find that an email I tossed off in three lines, could be better said in one if I put some effort into editing. And taking that time does make a difference. But it’s a “rule of thumb” – we always have to use our best judgment. Not everything can be handled in a one-line email, of course, but conciseness is a good precept to keep in mind.

  • Charlie Arehart

    I don’t know: first, to be clear, I do “put some effort into editing” any email I write, but I’ve just not felt compelled to struggle to reduce it to as few words as possible. I hear what you and the blogger are saying, and I get that some of you feel strongly about this, but whereas most of the tips are good ones that most can buy into, this one seems to cross a line of telling people how to “be”. Some people are chatty. Some people are prone to “teach”. Some people are offended by both. We can strive to warn the offenders to beware, but really, I think those offended have an equal duty to lighten up.

    It always irks me that some are offended by (or will simply not read) a 3 paragraph email, when it would take only 30 seconds to speak it in a phone call.

    And before you say, “why not just pick up the call”, let’s clarify that often emails are going to many people at once, or a list. In that case, it’s just no feasible to call everyone.

    Finally, I’ll welcome anyone who would propose how I might have put this comment into one line, and not opened the possibility for someone to misunderstand, misconstrue, or miss a point that I made. 🙂

  • SlowDown

    I agree with points 1 & 2, disagree with 3. I get so much email that it helps to have the previous message included so I know the history of the “conversation”. If multiple emails are flying around a group, everyone is assured of who is answering what.

  • csc3

    I don’t use email as the main project management tool (the office uses a message board-like website for PM), so I’m not very concerned about threading messages. I see how it’s helpful if you communicate mostly through emails, though.

  • Gail Gardner

    These are some excellent tips. I’ve been guilty of long emails because what I do is complicated and in hindsight realize many short emails would be better. Short yes – one line may not be enough for many discussions.

    One thing my regular collaborators and I do is use Skype or IM for quick answers and comments or shares instead of email. The busier you get the better than works.

    If we could just get your FYI suggestion implemented that would make a huge difference.

    One other tip to those emailing very busy people (and if they are actively influential on Social Networks and have 10,000+ followers they ARE very busy): If we don’t answer right away do follow up (ideally for me on Skype or at Twitter to let me know you sent an email) but DO NOT send email after email. Just because you have time doesn’t mean we do and you will get ignored (in self-defense of our time) if you do that.

  • Marco Polo

    I would also add “distro creep”. This is usually a passive-aggressive move to ensure you have your posterior covered. Nothing worse than asking a simple question and having the other person add my boss, their boss, and half of the board of directors.

  • alex

    Is it bad email etiquette to only put a few words with a question mark in the subject header and nothing in the body? For example: “Send email blast yet?” in the subject header.

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