- the global and ubiquitous availability of e-mail,
- the ability to communicate asynchronously, and
- the use of e-mail to replace other forms of communication, namely, telephone calls and face-to-face meetings.
Our use of and reliance on e-mail is largely positive. We accomplish much more now than even a few years ago because we can communicate with others on our schedule and they on theirs. However, some of our e-mail habits are big time wasters from a recipient’s standpoint. Some of these habits have been covered earlier in this Credo, some merit repeating, and some of the suggestions below are new. The objective here is to ask e-mail senders to consider—be mindful of—the recipient’s time.
Here’s a simple question to ask: Is the e-mail I’m sending a good use of the recipient’s time? Remember, they are like you. They get too many e-mails a day, just like you do. They are pushed for time and need to get a lot of things done, just like you do.
Tips for Improving Time Usage
The following is a best-practices checklist of e-mail habits that help minimize wasted recipient time:
- Limited Use of Reply All. As mentioned earlier in the Credo, we use Reply All out of habit. And it’s a bad habit. Consider making Reply All the exception, not the rule. Doing so will easily reduce e-mail volume by 10 to 20 percent a day. That equates to some 20 fewer e-mails every day—100 a week—that nobody has to spend time handling!
- No Gratuitous Internal E-mail. Gratuitous e-mails are those with short statements such as “Thanks” or “Will do” or “Okay.” They’re unnecessary when sent internally, especially if everyone agrees in advance to stop sending them. Although we often say these things in conversation, we’d never use memos or letters for such responses. This is a perfect example of how e-mail is more of a written medium than a spoken one—and why it needs to be treated as such.
- Terminate Endless E-mail Threads. At some point, an e-mail conversation becomes ridiculously inefficient. Specifically, after three replies to each other, it’s time to schedule a live conversation—a phone call or a face-to-face meeting. Consider this: We can type about 40 words a minute, but we can speak about 150 words per minute. The math is pretty convincing. When what’s being communicated is more complex, measured by the number of replies it takes to communicate the message, schedule a live conversation.
- Identify Significant Information in Forwarded E-mail. Forwarding e-mail is a great way to pass along valuable information. However, if the sender identifies up front what’s significant about the forwarded e-mail, instead of saying only “FYI” at the beginning, the recipient is directed to the reason the e-mail was forwarded. This reduces the time a recipient spends trying to figure out what’s important.
- Thinking Out Loud in E-mail. Never think “out loud” in e-mail. Do your reasoning before writing the message. The recipient can’t easily tell whether the information they’re reading is significant, correct, actionable, and so on. They have to assume it was meant to be there. This is particularly important for managers and executives—never think out loud in e-mail. Subordinates are forced to take these e-mails as directives, which causes them to defocus on the meaningful work already on their plates.
There are lots of best practices that can be added to the list above. Adopt any you find on your own or observe others using. Everything you do to shave the amount of time a recipient spends on e-mail adds that time to their productive efforts elsewhere. And since we are they, we all benefit from focusing on e-mail time usage.
By focusing on the amount of time recipients spend handling e-mail and reducing it, everyone is more focused and productive.
What Can I Do?
- You can be part of the solution.
- You can adopt one or more of the suggestions above.
- You can promote these suggestions to others on your team and in your organization.
Nothing. We’ve come to the end. The most important things you can do are listed above. Being part of the solution—by adopting and advocating some or all of the Credo’s suggestions—is all anyone can do.
The Rest of the S.M.A.R.T. Email Credo?
One subscriber made a brilliant recommendation last month: Include links to the rest of the S.M.A.R.T. Email Credo posts so readers could review them. Here they are: