When it comes to e-mail, as with so many other things, less is more. Naturally, I’m not talking about those precious missives that read like an epistolary novel and bring joy to our hearts, because they really don’t make up most of the e-mailing that we do. I’m referring to the mundane messages used for transmitting information, typically between employees at a company, often also among family, friends and associates. Few people seem to realize that each e-mail one receives requires time and attention and just enough decision-making to drain a person of a little bit of their daily allowance of focus and energy. Me? I’d rather waste as little of that productivity as is possible. After all, a hundred useless e-mails might even be worth... a whole blog post.
Many e-mails 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 are missing altogether. And then there are those e-mails that didn’t have to be sent at all. In fact, whether it’s crucial or trivial, sent or received, every e-mail 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 e-mails sure can be 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, though in case you were wondering I’m only impressed by the traditional kind and I suffer eyelid twitches when I see those yellow icons.) Also, if your message is a subsequent turn in a long conversation that began with an e-mail titled “Contact me ASAP”—maybe change that title (even mid-conversation) 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, open up a new e-mail window and 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 casual banter (or extraneous 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. Say you want to know if I’m available for a project. Understand that without more information, I’m generally unable to give a yes or no answer. So save us both the time it would take for me to respond with a request for specifics—and simply include the specifics I might 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 know 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 falls in the toilet and I can’t access my e-mail archive and all I have is a printout of some message you’ve sent me before. But sometimes it might just save me a tiny bit of time, like when I’m looking at your e-mail and I want to call you from a land line, and if your number is right there, I can skip the microscopically tedious step of looking up your number in my contacts before I 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 even saw the message.
- If your message 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 laws that simply apply. If you have to—make yours short, logo-free and set in a tiny font. And 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 sending 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 what to do with the files I wound up having to download.)
- Set your e-mail program to disinclude the attachments when replying to e-mails 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 the casual chat).
- Use the rich text setting only to add your personal touch. Use fonts, colors, bold, italics. But don’t add logos. Don’t add icons for awards your company has won. Don’t add image-based Twitter and Facebook links. Use classic type-based smileys and leave out the picture kind. In my (ruthless, maybe) opinion, this is all in poor taste, and if your recipient’s mail program differs from yours, some or all of these are likely to register as attachments. Think about it—if your e-mail requires scrolling down and you have a bunch of janky gifs and pngs and the label counts six attachments, I’ll have a hard time determining how many of them, if any, are actual documents you might need me to read. (Oh dear, I seem to have circled back to point number one.)
Disclaimer: I realize that people are different (though sometimes I have to strain terribly). Not all of these tips will make every e-mail user’s life easier. Some might even elicit strong protest from other opinionated individuals whose workflows differ from mine. Take what fits, leave what doesn’t. And feel free to rant in a comment below, or even in an e-mail... if you must.