Are you haunted by too much email appearing nonstop, lurking in your inbox, and raising your anxiety level?
If you are like most people at work, you get too much unnecessary email. If you need to keep your email open, you probably have messages popping up constantly, stealing your concentration. Out of habit, you may be sending disruptive, needless emails too.
Apply these 21 tips, and take the fear out of looking at your screen!
1-6. Use a different medium.
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. Choose to talk by phone or in person when the subject is touchy. When you and the other individual or individuals are likely to disagree, don't start an email argument. It will drain your time and energy. Instead, meet by phone, in person, or virtually to talk through your differences. Thirty minutes of meeting can replace hours of reading, writing, revising, and stewing over email counterattacks.
3. Schedule a meeting when the topic is complicated. If you use email for complex discussions, the threads can go on forever, roping dozens of people into a sticky web of communication and miscommunication. Why not meet instead, in person, by phone, or virtually? A one-hour meeting with a specific agenda and outcome can save you hours of teasing through knotted email threads.
4. Use a calendar system and meeting requests—not email—to schedule meetings and events. Don't go back and forth with emails that you and others have to type or drag into your calendars. And remember: You do not need to send email reminders (and receive replies) for an event on people's calendars.
5. Use instant messaging (IM) for quick immediate questions. Don't email when you need a near-instant answer. If you do, you will find yourself glued to your screen, waiting for a reply that doesn't appear—and then emailing again.
6. Use SharePoint or groupware to post information rather than emailing to everyone. If you email, people will reply, often needlessly. Post information such as meeting notes, updates, and copies of materials. Get people in the habit of using your intranet rather than emailing you for information.
7-10. Limit your output.
7. Ask yourself "Is this email necessary?" before sending anything, including replies. Examples: It may not be necessary to email someone you are going to see tomorrow. Your manager may not need an update on a routine project. Your staff may already receive messages you forward to them. Remember: Any email you send may lead to a response. That response puts you in a deeper pile of email.
8. 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.
9. Ask yourself "Can these emails be consolidated?" if you email someone throughout the day. Although it's a bad idea to send emails with several topics, it's efficient to send one email rather than three or four on the same topic. For example, if you and a coworker are working on holiday greeting cards, do not send one email with a list of printers, another with the name of a printer your manager suggests, and a third with printer fees. Combine those messages. Similarly, if you often have several questions about a project, keep a OneNote notebook or a document open to list your questions. Then send them in one email rather than firing off a series of emails. You will get fewer emails in reply.
10. Send thank-yous only when they are necessary—that is, to confirm that you have received an important message or to communicate sincere appreciation. Don't send thanks to respond to every message or nearly every one—you may get pointless "you're welcome" replies. Worse yet, you may be encouraging a culture of mindless courtesies that fill everyone's inbox. Instead, why not set a standard with your group, a standard of not sending unnecessary thanks and acknowledgments?
11-14. Think. Then act.
11. Think before you choose Reply to All, and don't reply to all unless everyone really needs your reply. When you reduce your replies to all, you reduce the number of replies you receive. Also, you save others from having to read unnecessary email.
12. Anticipate your readers' questions and provide answers in your email. Then you will not have to reply to follow-up questions—and your readers won't have to ask them. Imagine that you are sitting down to discuss the topic with your email readers: Which questions would they ask you? Answer those questions in your first (and only) message.
13. Let important messages you write sit awhile before you send them. Take a break from the message; then reread it to see if it says what you intend. Ask for a second opinion from a colleague when a message is very important. Only when you are certain your email communicates your message, send it. Investing this time upfront will save you from having to send "Oops" messages, clarifications, and apologies.
14. When you have fixed a problem, think about who needs to know. Then inform them. You will eliminate the "Is it fixed yet?" messages. If you email, include "No reply is necessary" in your message.
15-20. Ask for what you need.
15. Make it clear what kind of response you want—or don't want. For example, ask someone to send you a meeting request rather than an email. Include "No response is necessary" when you do not need a reply. Tell team members "Let's discuss this at the meeting" to discourage unnecessary email exchanges.
16. When you initiate a message to a group, ask them to reply to you rather than to the entire group—unless everyone needs the replies. This step reduces email threads that can take off, roping in you and others.
17. If you manage people, encourage them not to copy you on their email unless it is essential that you have the information. Give them as much authority and training as possible, so they don't email you continually asking for your approval and guidance.
18. Ask to have your name removed from distribution lists. If you regularly receive company information that has nothing to do with you or your understanding of the organization, ask the list manager to remove your name and email address. But remember that you will not receive any emails sent to the list.
19. Unsubscribe from recurring email from outside the company. Ask vendors to remove you from their lists if you are not interested in their products. You will quickly notice a drop in email.
20. Let coworkers know when they are sending you messages you don't need. People may think you want copies of meeting minutes emailed to you, when you prefer to read them online. They may believe it is efficient to confirm that they received your messages, so tell them you will ask for confirmation when you need it. Less pointless email = less work for everyone.
21. Make the most of your email program.
21. Have Outlook or your email client sort messages rather than leaving them to hit your inbox randomly. Have messages from certain people or with certain subjects automatically sent to special folders. For example, have blog posts from this site sent to a "Business Writing" folder to read at your leisure. Have messages you are copied on sent to a CC folder. Make sure low-priority messages don't distract you from high-value projects. Have no-priority messages automatically deleted.
You can zap the email monster. Follow the suggestions above, and send them to your team. Then watch your inbox shrink.
A version of "21 Ways to Shrink the Email Monster" originally appeared in Better Writing at Work.
If you liked this piece, you might like "110 Tips for Sending Email That Gets Read—and Gets Results," email tips to have handy on your desktop or bookshelf.