In a recent business owner survey we conducted with several thousand of our business owner clients it became very clear that email had eclipsed phone calls and meetings as the single biggest time distraction in business. It’s addictive; it’s never ending; and it’s overwhelming. Here are our top 10 e-mail best practices we think every company should adopt.
1. Use powerful subject lines to streamline the time it takes for your team to process and find e-mail.
No more blank subject lines, or “Hello . . .” Instead, you and your team should make your subject line a clear, concise description of the e-mail. This helps you screen messages and it helps you later search for e-mails you need to find after the fact.
No more being lazy and forwarding on an email with a quick comment. Instead, invest a moment to redo the subject line to give your recipient the context to better understand the email and to later make that email easier to search for and find.
2. Use the “1-2-3” system for your subject line.
“David,” one of my business coaching clients who runs a medical group in the Midwest shared, “I get emails from my team and I don’t know if they need me to do something, or if they are just keeping me in the loop.”
It’s a common problem – getting emails with no clear direction if this is just and “FYI” or if it is in fact something you need to take action one, and with what kind of urgency.
We suggest our clients use the “1, 2, 3” subject line system. Note at the start of your subject line a 1, 2, or 3.
A “1” means this is time sensitive and important email that you need to take action on right away.
A “2” means that you have to take some action, but it isn’t an urgent/important matter. Handle it in a reasonable time frame.
A “3” means no action is required on the part of the recipient, simply scan the email for content when convenient.
Here’s how this looks in practice:
“2: Notes from Franklin call 2/5/15” This tells recipient they need to take action on the e-mail.
“2 Mark; 3 Sarah: Two follow-up items still needed to complete Sullivan Project” This tells Mark he needs to take action and Sarah that this is just FYI for her.
3. Don’t mass “CC” or “BCC.” Only CC or BCC if the person really needs the information. Remember, it’s not just that one e-mail, but all the subsequent e-mails in that chain that you’ll likely include that person on.
4. Turn off your auto send-and-receive function (or at least reduce the frequency it downloads new e-mail). Contrary to the way it feels, you don’t need to see every e-mail the instant it comes in. A study by UC Irvine researcher Gloria Mark reported that it takes the average office worker 20 minutes to return from that interruption to what you were previously doing.
5. To get less e-mail, send less. The more you send, the more you get.
6. If you’re involved in a frustrating back-and-forth conversation by e-mail due to hazy understanding on either side, just pick up the phone or speak in person. E-mails are not good as a nuanced conversation tool and it shouldn’t replace all conversations.
7. In replying to a long conversation thread, pull up the key information to the top of the e-mail. Make it easier for your recipient to quickly get what you are communicating.
Also, if you are creating a longer e-mail with multiple items, consider numbering your items to make them easier for your reader to follow and respond to your e-mail.
8. If you think the topic may be a sensitive one, or that the reader may be upset or offended by your e-mail, don’t send it. Talk with them instead (even if you then send a summary or confirming e-mail after).
Never say something in an e-mail that you wouldn’t be willing to say directly to the person you are speaking to in the e-mail. This goes double for your team. Quickly deal with any inappropriate e-mails.
9. Don’t use e-mail to manage your “tasks” or to manage your team’s tasks. Use a project list on a spreadsheet, or a shared task management or project management tool instead.
E-mail is a poor place to keep a running list. What comes today is washed away by what comes later today (let alone tomorrow).
There are simple, inexpensive project management tools available online and on mobile devices that allow you to list, categorize, prioritize, and share your open action items. It’s a worthwhile investment to prevent tasks and follow-ups from falling through the cracks.
These include Asana, Zoho Projects, and Base Camp.
10. Learn your top five e-mail recipients’ preferences. Just sort your “Sent” folder by recipient and pick out the five people your send the most e-mail to. These will likely be internal team members.
Ask them if they prefer wide or shallow e-mails. When are their e-mail-free times? What do they want to and not want to be CC’d on? What three things would they like you to do differently about how you communicate by e-mail to make their life better? Then reverse the conversation and share your e-mail preferences with them.