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21 Ways to Shrink the Email Monster

These are three of my favorite ways to cut down on needless email, along with a fourth tip I would like your comments on:

1. Choose to pick up the phone. When you know an email is likely to spawn a series of back-and-forth messages, ask yourself whether a phone call is more efficient. When you want to choose a date, time, and place to meet for lunch, for example, planning by phone for five minutes can achieve your goal. It’s more efficient than exchanging six to ten email interruptions.

2. Send a request or question to only one person–not to an entire group. Otherwise, the entire group may respond, sinking you in unnecessary replies. For example, if you can’t find contact information for a client, write to the person who is most likely to have the information–not the 12 people who might have it.

3. If you manage people, give them as much authority and training as possible, so they don’t email you continually, asking for your approval and guidance. Also, encourage them not to copy you on their email, unless it is essential that you have the information.

4. Have people use polling buttons to communicate their preferences rather than replying to you with their choice. For example, if you were planning the quarterly luncheon, you might have people choose a chicken, beef, or vegetarian pasta entree by clicking their choice.

Have you applied the fourth tip? If so, in which kinds of situations? It was recommended by a participant in an Email Intelligence class, but I haven’t had the opportunity to use it.

If you have additional tips for shrinking the size of a monstrous email inbox, please share them.



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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “21 Ways to Shrink the Email Monster”

  • I’ve used the polling buttons when I worked at bank with a group of 10 technical writers. I thinks it’s much more efficient than long-form email responses, because Outlook (at that time–haven’t used it recently) put all of the responses in a table for me automatically. But first I had to train them on what polling buttons are. They aren’t widely used, unfortunately.

  • Karla, thanks for mentioning the training aspect. There are many things about Outlook and other programs that people have not used and don’t understand. If only people could set aside time to learn about time-saving features!
    I am looking forward to sending out a poll and seeing the results.


  • There have been more than a few times (even today!) that I have started to compose an e-mail and then picked up the phone. The phone shouldn’t always be a last resort for making a complex situation easily managed.
    Thanks for the other suggestions too!

  • Your “21 Ways…” article arrived just as I’m about to start working with a client to manage his emails. Perfect timing. I want to see how many of your suggestions will make a difference to him and to me. I’m also going to see how these polling buttons work. Thank you for a great newsletter and lots of useful tips, Lynn.

  • When proper documentation and proof is required of who said what on any particular matter, there is nothing to beat the e-mail. Telephone conversations are not proof of anything and simply fade away.

  • R., thanks for pointing out the limitation of telephone conversations. The solution is to have the conversation, then follow up in email with a summary of the decisions, main points, and any action items.


  • Our office uses GoogleDocs to coordinate attendance and meal choices for conferences. This simple change has reduced staff work time on this task by 75%. We love it!

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