When it comes to email, as with so many other things, less is more. I’m not talking about those precious letters that read like an epistolary novel and bring joy to our hearts, because they really don’t make up most of the emailing that we do. I’m talking about the mundane messages used for transmitting information, typically between employees at a company, often also among family and friends. Few people seem to notice that every email requires time, focus, and decision-making. Me? I’d rather waste as little of that productivity as is possible. After all, the energy drained by a hundred useless emails might amount to the energy required to write a whole blog post about it.
Many emails come with attachments, some of which are useful, many of which aren’t. A good number of messages include folks on CC—some of whom are there for a good reason, many of whom aren’t. Titles often don’t point to the content, or they are missing altogether. And then there are the emails that didn’t have to be sent at all. Whether it’s crucial or trivial, sent or received, every email a person handles is an obligation. To answer? Delete? Deal with now? Save for later? Keep as insurance?
There’s an aphorism I like by Henry David Thoreau that seems relevant here: The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. In these terms—lots of little emails sure can get expensive. Below are a few of my ideas for lightening this costly load.
- Don’t attach attachments that aren’t actual attachments you want me to review. Heads up, logos—this means you.
- Use the title bar strategically. That is, try to have it describe the message contents or function. If you want to leave it blank, try not to leave it blank anyway. (Sometimes if a message is just a personal letter, and I want my title to elicit a feeling instead of summarizing my content, I’ll use punctuation marks to create a distinctive non-verbal title. Smileys are fine.) If your message is a subsequent turn in a long conversation that began with an email titled “Contact me ASAP”—maybe change that title to something that doesn’t suggest there’s another emergency.
- Consider when to reply to an existing thread and when to send a new message. If my last message was an invoice, and now you want to ask me if I do copywriting in German, start a new thread. (Of course if you’re my boss or my client, do whatever is easiest—just note that I might not be impressed with your workflow habits if your easiest isn’t the same as my most efficient.) This is especially important if your message has any type of legal stature, like when it contains a confirmation of business terms, or it could conceivably be used in court as proof of contact or an agreement of any sort. Nobody wants small talk or irrelevant attachments interfering with what has become an official document or proof of contract.
- If you’re writing with a question, do include the information I will need to answer that question. If you want to know if I’m available for a project, try to understand that without more information, it may be hard for me to give a yes or no answer. Save us both the time it would take for me to respond with a request for specifics—and simply include the specifics I need to make an informed decision in the first place. That—and per item number two, above, remember to title your e-mail with something useful, like “Project inquiry” or “Consult opportunity” or “Are you interested in some work?” (instead of replying to a thread about billing from months ago, titled “April invoice”).
- If your e-mail is a reminder about a payment due, do include your account number and/or other relevant billing information. Even if I’ve made payments to you before. Because I might be on a different computer, or I might be using a different account, or I might want to triple-check the details.
- Whenever you sign your name at the bottom of a message, whether it’s with a quick initial or a formal signature, please, please, please include your mobile phone number. Even if you think I already have it. Even if it doesn’t seem like I might need to call you. Even if you included it in a message once already, days or month ago. It’s the polite thing to do, and the practical thing to do. Sometimes, it can be what makes it possible for me to contact you in an emergency, if I’ve misplaced your card and my phone has fallen in the toilet and I can’t access my email archive. Even if I have other ways of looking up your number, it’s nice if I can skip that tedious step and simply make the call.
- Use the CC and BCC fields carefully. Basically you CC everyone who should be made aware of your communication but who need not participate in the conversation. BCC, in turn, is used to show your email to a contact privately. If you’ve been put on BCC don’t use the reply-all or forward functions under any circumstances. Remember—officially, you never saw the message.
- If your email is an instance of simple chatting, meaning that all you want to say is “yep, got it,” “thanks” or “see ya”—consider using Facebook chat or phone text messaging instead, or pick up the telephone. Because they're stored as separate conversations and kept organized by recipient, individual chat messages don’t add to the clutter in ways that individual e-mails do. (Of course mail programs have that chat-style message view functionality, but in my experience that’s a great way to lose any control over whom you actually want on CC when it’s your turn to add to the thread.)
- Avoid empty legalese. I’m referring especially to those blocks of text that go on about intended recipients and proprietary information. Their content is implied, and possibly redundant, given actual law. If you have to—make yours short, logo-free and set in a tiny font. Leave out the part about saving paper and not printing this message: it’s unlikely to change any minds.
- If you’re wondering whether to use a download link or include the attachment—err on the side of the link. (Warning: use your judgment here. If you’re sending baby pictures to the in-laws, maybe save yourself the time it would take to help locate you in-laws’ downloads folder over the phone and just send the jpegs already. If you’re sending your baby pictures to me, however, I prefer the dowload link. In fact, if I’m really in charge, what I want most is a link to the site where they’re already up and I can see them without also having to deal with downloaded files.
- Set your email program to disinclude the attachments when replying to emails with attachments. So if you are my in-laws and I send you those baby pictures—don’t bounce them back to me when you’re writing back (and revisit item number six for a refresh on why it may be better to transmit your “how CUTE!!!!” over a medium more suited to casual chatting).
- Use the rich text setting to add your personal touch. Use fonts, colors, bold, italics. Don’t add logos. Don’t add icons for awards your company has won. Don’t add image-based Twitter and Facebook links. All this is in poor taste, and if your recipient’s mail program differs from yours, some or all of these are likely to register as attachments, which brings us back to point number one.
I realize that people are different. Not all of these tips will make every email user’s life easier, and some may elicit protest from people whose workflows differ from mine. Take what fits, leave what doesn’t. And feel free to call me to rant, or send me an email if you must.