We’ve all made mistakes when emailing before. We’ve misspelled someone’s name, or added an incorrect recipient, or gave someone the wrong details on a project. These errors are annoying, time-consuming, and sometimes costly—but they’re entirely forgivable, so long as they remain a deviation from the norm.
It’s a much bigger problem when the norm—what we’ve come to know and expect—is what’s wrong.
Email is supposed to be a tool to help us get things done, and maybe I’m just spoiled by the luxuries of modern technology, but I feel like we’re not using it to its full potential. Some of the emails I get are a total waste of my time, and borderline incomprehensible—yet they still fit into the “normal” email patterns we’ve come to expect.
I say it’s time we shed a light on this issue, and start fixing or eliminating the email-related norms we’ve adopted over the decades.
I’ve had it with these perpetual and, at times destructive email norms keeping me from working efficiently, and I hope you’ll come to share in my frustration—if for no other motivation than to recruit one more person in my vendetta to end them once and for all.
1. Checking email constantly.
When was the last time you checked your email? Oh shoot, you better check it! Hurry! You might miss something important! Oh wait, you probably have automatic notifications, so your phone is in a near-constant state of buzzing as new emails trickle in from your boss, your coworkers, your friends, and that weird novelty site whose newsletter you accidentally subscribed to a few years ago.
According to one study, 80 percent of people check email outside of normal work hours, with 11 percent admitting they check email “constantly.” The rate for checking personal email at work is even higher, with 90 percent of people checking their personal email during work hours, and a similar 11 percent checking email constantly.
I won’t judge you for checking in on your personal accounts while at work—it only takes a minute, after all, but we’ve established an email culture where it’s expected that people check on both their personal and work accounts almost constantly, and it’s a problem.
Why It’s a Problem
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest reasons why this is a problem:
- Stress. If you’re like most people, checking your email has become something of a compulsion. You experience a tinge of anxiety because you haven’t checked in for some time, so you hit refresh on your inbox and either feel a sigh of relief when you see no new messages, or you see a problem, and experience relief once you’ve dealt with it or put it on your task list. But here’s the problem; you wouldn’t have that anxiety if you didn’t feel the need to check your email constantly in the first place! If you were confident that all your contacts understood you check your email only occasionally throughout the day, you’d be able to rest easy.
- Distraction. Research shows it can take your mind up to 23 minutes to fully recover from a distraction. So let’s envision a scenario I imagine is pretty common for you. You’ve got a project open in one window on your desktop, while your email is open in another. An email comes in, so you stop what you’re doing to glance at it—even if it’s just for a second—then you have to spend a few minutes finding your place, and maybe a few more minutes accomplishing some real work. Then another email comes in. If you get emails more often than every 23 minutes, then hypothetically, you’d never build up enough momentum to be considered truly “focused” on your work. The bottom line here? Constant email checking is unbearably distracting.
- Self-perpetuation. The other interesting problem with this norm is that it’s self-perpetuating. You get that anxiety relief when you check your email, so you’re prompted to check your email more frequently. That dependence then makes you more anxious when you aren’t checking in. Similarly, if you’re always replying to emails as soon as they come in, no matter when they come in (more on that in the next section), people will come to expect that you’re checking your email constantly, and you’ll start being held to that standard.
So what could we do instead? Obviously, not check our email so often.
Here’s the system I use:
First, turn email notifications off on your phone—that should eliminate most of your incoming distractions. Then, establish some “on” hours and “off” hours for yourself. For example, you might have your email open from 9a to 12p during the week, followed by a break from 12p to 2p, followed by open accounts from 2p to 5p.
Then, you might check in at 7p each night to make sure there aren’t any fires to put out. This setup allows you to monitor your email enough to handle any incoming issues, but still prevents you from the worst effects of the norm. And if everybody did it, the expectation for constantly-checked email would practically disappear.
This isn’t the only system that can work, of course; any effort you make to stop checking your email so much is going to be beneficial, both for you as an individual and for your organization as a whole.
2. Using the same old boilerplate clichés.
Have you ever felt like your business emails have gotten formulaic? I certainly have. Think about some of the following phrases:
“I look forward to ______”
“Hello _____! I hope you’re well.”
“It’s great to hear from you!”
“Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Don’t hesitate to reach out.”
I imagine someone, at some point, was the first person to use each of these copy-and-pasted phrases, but I can’t help wondering if they’ve always existed, since the beginning of time, as incantations of mediocrity from some timeless beings who created our modern email norms as a prank on humanity.
On some level, stock phrases like these are useful, and some people even recommend using them regularly. I’m certainly not above falling back on them from time to time.
The problem I have is when people seem to write entire emails composed of nothing but stock phrases, or who use the same stock phrase so many times, you can almost predict what their emails will say before they send them.
Why It’s a Problem
So why is this such a problem?
- Insincerity. Email tone is notoriously hard to read as it is. Using stock phrases only makes it more difficult to dissect the nuances, and in some cases, may compromise perceptions of your sincerity. For example, let’s say you email one of your particularly paranoid subordinates with the stock phrase, “best of luck.” They might interpret that as you intended, as a deliberate and sincere gesture of good fortune. They might also interpret it as a sarcastic jab, subtly indicating you believe their plan is going to fail.
- Lack of specificity. Stock phrases are inherently non-specific, since to be applicable to multiple situations, they need to be created with vague, general terms. In some situations, this is fine, since a general reply is all that’s warranted, but in other cases, this can result in confusion or gaps in knowledge that prevent your recipient from understanding your real intent. For example, let’s say a coworker comes to you with a description of a problem they’re facing with the project management software you both use. They close the email saying, “I would appreciate your help in this matter.” Okay. But how? Do they want your advice? Do they want a link to the help page? Do they want you to contact the software team? Help how, Devin? Help how?
- Lack of personality. Stock phrases also rob you of the unique turns of phrase and wording choices that make your email different from someone else’s. Being able to distinguish one email source from another based on personality alone is important; on a low-importance level, it adds some flavor and points of interest to your day. On a high-importance level, it can help you read someone’s tone more appropriately (based on what you’re used to them saying), and serve as another layer of identification that prevents you from sending the wrong thing to the wrong person.
If other people in your company frequently use stock phrases, you can start recognizing the types of phrases they usually use and how they use them as their own kind of personality marker. For example, if your boss always tells you “best of luck,” you can probably rest confidently knowing they didn’t mean it sarcastically when they approved your transfer request.
For your own purposes, try to avoid using stock phrases. When you find yourself typing one out (or worse, using a stock phrase shortcut thanks to Gmail hacks), stop yourself and try to think of an alternate way of phrasing it.
There’s plenty of words in the English language, so come up with something inventive, or at least come up with some stock phrases that are unique to you.
3. Responding to only the first question within an email, then ignoring the rest of it.
You’ve undoubtedly encountered the coworker who only seems to be able to see the first question in an email that contains more than one. Here’s an example of a typical exchange:
to: Lisa Falkner <email@example.com>
date: Tue, May 15, 2018 at 8:54 AM
subject: Re: Project details
Hey Lisa, just a few questions for clarification:
1. What color do you want the text to be?
2. By when do you need the first draft?
3. How does the client spell their name, exactly?
from: Lisa Falkner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
date: Tue, May 15, 2018 at 9:01 AM
subject: Re: Project details
My next response?
to: Lisa Falkner <email@example.com>
date: Tue, May 15, 2018 at 9:15 AM
subject: Re: Project details
Hey Lisa, just a few questions for clarification:
1. What color do you want the text to be?
2. By when do you need the first draft?
3. How does the client spell their name, exactly?
1. By when do you need the first draft?
2. How does the client spell their name, exactly?
Why It’s a Problem
When this happens, do you feel like you need to send a single email containing a single question to the recipient multiplied by the number of questions you have if you want to make progress on a conversation? That’s how I feel, and it’s obviously frustrating.
Ideally, read and respond to every separate question in-line within an email. I like to do so by including my reply in red-colored text, directly below each question, and I’m happiest when others follow the same strategy in reply to my emails. If there are multiple replies in-line, then having each in-line reply use a different font color works well for me.
But we all know that some people just can’t seem to see more than one question before hitting “reply”, so let’s say you’ve got some important questions to ask one of those people. What can you do?
- Call them. One of your best options is to just call them. Phone calls, while hardly a perfect communication medium, do lend themselves better to a one-on-one conversation. If you have questions about the nature of the questions, or if follow-up questions arise, it’s easy to handle them in a quick and intuitive manner. This also leaves less room for procrastination or avoidance; it’s a way to ensure the questions are handled efficiently and in a timely manner.
- Give a heads up to your recipient. You don’t have to avoid email as a communication medium for getting multiple questions answered; you just have to know who you’re dealing with. If you need to send multiple questions via email and want to keep the replies documented in writing, try giving your recipient a heads that you’re going to send them.
- Interactive forms. If you decide to include multiple questions in your email, try to offer them in a format that lends itself to easy interaction.
There’s plenty of wiggle room here, so long as you respect your recipient’s time and try to make the process as smooth as possible.
4. The dreaded wall-o’-text.
We’re all familiar with emails that have virtually no organization within them. Someone decides to spill their thoughts into a single, chunky paragraph, oftentimes with several unrelated sentences back to back. If you’re like me, you’re tempted to just reply “tldr”.
We’ve collectively become okay with this egregious lack of formatting, possibly because higher-ups in our organization perpetuate it, or possibly because we recognize that not everyone has the time to properly format and highlight the information they send. But as you’ll see, this is an easy problem to fix—so long as you’re willing to fix it—and solving it could have enormous benefits.
Why It’s a Problem
You might be tempted to suck it up and plunge through a block paragraph of text, or use it in one of your own emails when you’re pressed for time, but think about the real consequences of these disorganized types of emails:
- Organization. If your email isn’t organized, it could be a secondary indicator that your thoughts aren’t organized—and it may also be a breach of etiquette. If you have a solid understanding of the main points you want to get across, why not separate those main points into separate paragraphs? If you have a list of items to go over, why not format them according to where each begins and ends? Conversely, if you aren’t entirely sure what you want to say, you might just spill your thoughts onto a page—and that means your email probably isn’t very valuable or significant to the receiving party.
- Comprehension speed. Clumsily organized or non-organized emails are going to interfere with your bottom-line email productivity. It’s much easier and faster to understand someone’s intentions when their ideas are neatly organized for you. If you have to spend three times as long dissecting the true purpose and meaning behind a message, it’s going to prevent you from working at your most productive.
- Skimmability. Tightly organized emails are inherently more skimmable than disorganized ones, which means your recipients can easily glance at your email and get a feel for your primary intentions—without having to re-parse every line. If your email is mushed together in one massive paragraph, it’s going to take a word-by-word analysis to refresh their memory.
The only real alternative here is to spend more time organizing your emails before you send them out, and encourage your coworkers to do the same. Within that alternative, there are several strategies you can use to accomplish this:
- Shorter, smaller paragraphs. Instead of writing everything in one, all-consuming paragraph, split your work into several, smaller paragraphs. Each paragraph should represent one prevailing idea or theme, so if you’re switching gears, start a new line. The more space you have between discrete sentences, the better.
- Subheaders. If you’re working on a long email, consider using subheaders to label and draw attention to your various subsections. This is especially helpful if you’re emailing a group, but want to call individuals to different sections; it’s also helpful for improving the skimmability of your work. Keep your subheaders bold and relevant to the body copy that follows.
- Bullet points and lists. If you have lots of individual points to make in a single category, make sure you use bullet points and numbered lists. These are ideal for skimmability, and can make your points clear in an otherwise disorganized piece of content. I’m using them here for a reason.
- Bold and italics. You see I’m also using bold headers. That’s because bolded (and italic) text stands out next to traditional text. If you need to emphasize a specific word or phrase, or if you want to make it more obvious that you’re switching to a new section, take advantage of these formatting options.
It only takes an extra minute, and could save you and all your recipients several minutes of time (and spare you from miscommunications).
5. Reply all conversations.
I’m going to illustrate a scenario I’m quite positive we’ve all been in. You’re included in a group email thread, and appropriately so. There are a few group replies that are worth paying attention to, but then a couple of people start talking directly to each other on the thread, replying all with each new message even though their conversation is becoming less and less relevant to the subject at hand (and to the participants in the thread).
This is the reply all conversation, and we’ve come to accept it as a normal aspect of email—so much so that you might even be questioning how or why this made the list.
Why It’s a Problem
Let me convince you that the reply all conversation is a burden:
- Unnecessary alerts. Our digital-driven lives are productive and interconnected, but come with their share of downsides. One of those downsides is the ongoing bombardment of notifications across all our devices. Whenever we get a new notification, we can’t help but get distracted, and in the case of work-related alerts, a little stressed out. Reply all conversations give you several, and possibly dozens of alerts for incoming emails that may have little to no significance to your specific role.
- Tangential topics. In many cases, a conversation that unfolds within a group of people will begin to deviate, either in terms of topic or in terms of who’s involved in the conversation. For example, two out of five participants might ultimately end up talking about a separate side project they’re working on. This leads to thread clutter; low-value messages that make it harder to follow the originally intended conversation line, and make some people stop paying attention altogether. It’s a mess for everyone.
- Inappropriate use of medium. I’ll say it again: email isn’t the only medium out there. Business chat platforms like Slack are intentionally created with conversations in mind; they lend themselves to one-on-one or group conversations that unfold over the course of dozens of messages, and don’t have the same cluttering effect that email can. Even conference calls are better for this purpose. If you’re running a long-term reply-all conversation on email, you’re doing something wrong.
There are plenty of alternatives here. The best thing you can do is avoid starting a group email thread if you know there’s going to be significant back-and-forth conversation between two or more of your members; instead, try using chat, a phone call, or some other medium that’s more conducive to this kind of overlapping dialog.
If you’re in the middle of an email thread, try to keep your messages succinct and on-topic, and don’t ask too many questions in one message; that will open the door to a branching and overly complicated conversation to follow.
If you find yourself stuck on a thread that’s spiraling out of control, far beyond what’s relevant to your position, you can use the mute function in Gmail to turn off notifications for it (and mitigate some of the damage it’s causing).
6. Replying within an hour.
This is a related norm that bugs me. When you submit a form on a website or file a complaint with customer service, most brands assure you you’ll get a response within 24 hours. Yet in the business world, if you don’t reply within a couple of hours, you’ll probably have someone jumping down your throat—or, if you’re in a higher position than they are, someone pacing back and forth in their office, waiting for your reply.
According to one study by Boomerang, more than 50 percent of all email responses are sent within 2 hours. Another study found that the most common email response time is just 2 minutes. That’s insane.
I didn’t want to name this norm “replying ridiculously fast,” so I’m going to go with what I feel is the typical standard of one hour. People expect you to reply within an hour, and accordingly, they change their email habits to conform with that expectation.
Why It’s a Problem
I don’t know about you, but I’m not always in a position to email someone within an hour of their initial message. Sometimes, I don’t have all the information. Sometimes, I locked myself out of my office and am dedicating my attention to solving that problem instead of letting Cheryl know that yes, the meeting is still on for next week.
This lingering expectation is also problematic for the following reasons:
- Stress. It shouldn’t surprise you that this expectation causes serious stress and anxiety on both sides of the inbox. If you’re emailing someone an important question, or are talking about a sensitive subject, you could be wracked with anxiety as you await their reply, expecting them to get back to you immediately. When they don’t, we sometimes misinterpret it as a sign that they’re angry or that you’ve done something wrong.
On the other side, if you know people are expecting you to reply within an hour, you might start growing anxious when you haven’t checked your inbox lately, or feel immense dread when you realize there’s a message at the bottom of your stack that you’ve neglected for nearly a day! Nobody should be subject to this kind of stress.
- Delays. Unrealistic response time expectations can also be a source of wasted email productivity. Let me paint this scenario for you. A graphic designer is working on one of three projects when they encounter a difficult question they don’t know the answer to. They email the creative director, and expect to hear back soon.
Obviously, it’s not worth starting a new project—that would mean switching gears and losing their original train of thought—but they can’t continue with their current project because they don’t yet have the answer to that question. So they sit and wait 45 minutes for the creative director to reply. Even if they tinker with low-priority tasks in the meantime, that 45 minutes could have been spent much better had they assumed that their boss couldn’t reply right away.
- Inappropriate use of medium. Here’s the thing about email—it’s not the only communication medium we have, and it’s certainly not the fastest. If you have an emergency to deal with, why not call the person you need to get in touch with?
Why not send them a text message? In this glorious age of communication, with dozens of mediums on a single mobile device, why must we be expected to send an immediate reply in all those formats? I’m drawing a line here, and it starts with email.
- Mismatched expectations. Though replying within an hour is, in large part, the norm, the two studies in my introduction show that not everyone has the same expectations when it comes to email. When two people with different sets of expectations attempt to work together on a single project, it can result in serious issues.
Imagine if a person who expects an email within an hour communicates with someone who’s used to day-long gaps between messages; the result is, at best, inefficiency, and at worst, frustration.
- Expectation creep. Email wasn’t always a medium with a one-hour response time expectation. Hell, it wasn’t even a standard medium until the 1990s.
Over the past three decades or so, we’ve gradually gotten used to the idea that email demands a relatively fast response—with the internet going mainstream and the popularity of mobile devices pushing that change even further. I fear if we don’t start pushing back on this expectation, it might grow even more extreme.
So what can you do instead? For starters, I suggest you moderate your expectations as much as possible.
From there, it’s much easier to control your own actions and expectations than it is to control someone else’s; in other words, you may not be able to convince your boss that one-hour response times are unrealistic. So let’s focus on what you can do.
Whenever you need to send a message, consider whether this is an emergency or not. If it is, don’t email about it. Make a call, or send a text if you know your intended recipient prefers texting. Your message will probably get seen and earn a response far faster than if you sent it over email.
If it’s not an emergency, send the message over email with the assumption that you won’t hear back until the next day. This will free you up to work on other projects in the meantime, and will provide some relief to your email recipient.
7. CC abuse.
Ah, the convenience of the CC field. By entering anyone’s email address in this line (and the stealthier BCC line), you can make sure they get a copy of your message. It’s certainly useful for making sure certain attachments get to the right people, or showing courtesy to someone by keeping them in the loop.
You’re probably waiting for me to trash the CC function, so here’s my gripe: it’s commonly abused, and we’ve gotten used to it. The feature is easy to access, so too many of us exploit it for all it’s worth.
Sending an email to an employee from another company? Better CC their team members too. Working on an important project? Better CC the boss to make sure they see you working on it. Some people even request being included in the CC field for the majority of emails—even if they only have a passing interest in reading them.
It needs to stop.
Why It’s a Problem
You might be wondering what problem I could possibly have with putting more eyes on an email; after all, it’s free and it only takes a second.
But let’s take a look at some of the problems:
- Time consumption. First off, if the email isn’t inherently valuable to the person you’ve CC’d, you’ve instantly wasted their time. You’ve likely been in this position before; you see an incoming email, you open it, and you spend a minute or two reading it before you realize this wasn’t meant with you as the recipient. You might not even be attached to the project.
You’ve just wasted 2 minutes, which may not seem like much, but over the course of hundreds of emails and months of this ongoing habit as the norm, you’ll quickly lose hours of productivity.
- The bystander effect. The improper use of CC fields can also lead to role confusion. Let’s say you and two of your coworkers, who are all in charge of customer service, get an email from a customer with all of you CC’d that explains how unhappy this customer is. Who’s responsible for fielding this complaint?
The best-case scenario is that one of you replies-all with an indication that you’re handling it, so the other two can rest easy. But even then, two other team members are getting distracted by unnecessary messages. The worst-case scenario is that all three believe someone else is taking care of it, and so nobody does anything—the classic bystander effect. Plus, if you’re frequently CC’d on emails you don’t need to see, there may be a creeping “cried wolf effect,” prompting you to devalue potentially important emails because you believe they’ve been sent to you unnecessarily.
- Chaining. CCing people also has a cascading effect if any of those people decide to start replying to all. If you’re one of five people on an email thread and the other four keep talking to each other, you could keep getting new email notifications for messages that don’t matter to you until the conversation dies down or until you manually mute it.
It’s certainly not the pinnacle of productivity we all strive for. Things get even more complicated if some people keep a reply-all conversation going, while others send responses privately.
- The dreaded reply all. If you don’t have your own reply all horror story haunting your nightmares, you should read some of everyone else’s. When too many people are included on a CC line, it increases the chances that a misfiring reply all will allow an inappropriate or unintended response to fall into the wrong hands.
At best, this results in a good laugh between two friendly coworkers. At worst, someone could lose their job. And yes, it’s every individual’s responsibility to read the email carefully, and know how to reply all appropriately, but why make the field more dangerous if you don’t have to? This isn’t the last we’ve seen of reply all…
We all need to take this time to recheck our CC discipline. If you aren’t sure who to send an email to, start with one person and ask them if they know the appropriate party. If you want to send a message to the entire team, make sure everyone who’s CC’d there is going to find value in the message. And if you’re thinking about CCing one of your coworkers on an email thread, think carefully about how this will affect them; is this truly information they need to see?
8. Flippant subject lines.
Have you ever gotten an email with a subject line that didn’t accurately reflect the contents of the email? I’m sure you have. But what I’m talking about here isn’t a misspelled word or some nitpicky detail that wasn’t 100 percent on-point. Instead, I’m referring to email subject lines where the sender obviously didn’t put much care or attention on creating an accurate, concise subject line.
For example, a subject line like “Wednesday?” tells you practically nothing about the email contained within. Sometimes, people send emails without a subject line at all—though this practice is slowly declining thanks to the public consensus that this is an email faux pas.
My problem with flippant subject lines is that they’re treated as if they’re an acceptable way of communicating—and it’s time we fix that.
Why It’s a Problem
Assume for a moment that the body of an email is perfectly worded and gets the point across efficiently. Why would an inaccurate, overly short, or misleading subject line be a problem?
- Prioritization speed. If you’re like most people, you can’t possibly address emails one at a time, as they come in. Instead, you’ll see a few dozen (or more emails) in your inbox, waiting for you, when you come into the office in the morning or when you return from lunch. Because you can’t possibly read all those emails at once, you’re forced to judge the contents within each email based on the urgency and content of their subject lines.
If a subject line isn’t accurately portraying the content within, you may move a high-priority email to the bottom of your list, or spend time on a useless email over one that deserves your attention.
- Context. A subject line also has the great power (and the great responsibility) to set the tone for the email to come, and establish context for the rest of the message. For example, let’s say there’s an email containing a few new office rules that’s being sent to your entire department, such as new restrictions for the company’s BYOD policy, or a new standard format for invoices. Imagine this email with the subject line “New Office Policies Starting June 2018” compared to the subject line “For your consideration…”
The former clearly establishes the point of the email, makes it clear that the policies are mandatory, and even explains when they go into effect. The latter could be practically anything, and upon reading the policies, you could even be mistaken that these policies are optional, or that they require your approval to move forward.
- Inbox organization and searchability. I’m glad to live in an era with a Gmail inbox search that makes it easy to find nearly anything—and plenty of Gmail search operators to help you refine your search even further. Still, when browsing through your top-level inbox or while performing a formal search, it’s helpful to note specific subject lines that clue you into the content within each email.
If you see too many of the same subject line, or one-word lines that tell you nothing, it could take twice as long to find what you’re looking for.
The only real alternative here is to start writing better subject lines (and encourage your coworkers and correspondents to do the same). So let me define what I mean by “better”:
- Intelligible. You don’t have to write in complete sentences, but your idea should be readable and clear.
- Specific. Your subject line should also be unmistakably tied to the content of your email. It should indicate exactly what the point of your message is, with strong, specific keywords that make it easy to search for as well.
- Concise. No subject line should be so long that it spills off the edge or takes more than a couple of seconds to read. Keep things tidy by restricting your subject line word count.
It takes an extra 30 seconds to come up with a good subject line, and it could spare you and your recipients several extra minutes of effort. Let’s stop pretending it’s okay to send emails with half-assed subjects.
9. Thread necromancy.
Thread necromancy is a dark art, long banished by white-hat email practitioners. You had an email thread with one of your coworkers, or maybe a client, from ages ago about a project that’s long since been finished. Then, from the depths, the thread arises as new with a brand-new message about an unrelated project.
On one hand, I can understand the motivation here. Your contact might not have your email address memorized, so the most convenient thing for them to do is find the last email thread they had with you, and tack on a new message. And in some way, it might serve to jog your memory about who this person is or the last thing you worked on together.
But I’m pained to say this unfortunate norm is destructive, and should be forbidden.
Why It’s a Problem
As usual, I have several problems with this norm:
- Detail confusion. The first and most obvious problem here is that the recipient of this undead-summoning message is likely to get confused about the nature of your email, and in the future, might confuse new details with those from the old project. For example, let’s say you run a printing company and last year, one of your clients sent you artwork for 500 full-color brochures. Cool. Well, they just tacked on the thread with new artwork and a request for “500 more.”
Do they want 500 new brochures with the new artwork? Are they still in full-color? Yes, this is likely the case, but making assumptions is always a bad idea. You can also verify these details with a simple question, but when you go back to reference the email, there’s a chance you could confuse the new specs with the old specs, or the new art with the old art.
- Organization interference. This is also problematic for the recipient’s organizational structure. They might have specific folders for past projects, and this thread could have been relegated to that final destination.
Now you’ve pulled it straight into their inbox. Matters get even more complicated if your new subject and old subject belong to entirely different categories; Gmail labels can help here, but you’re still making things more difficult than they have to be.
- Thread size growth. I’ve already talked about the dangers of letting an email thread grow too large, so I won’t reiterate them all here. Suffice it to say, when you resurrect a thread like this, you’re allowing it to grow unrestrained, with anywhere from a handful to dozens of new messages. That increase in complexity is bound to cause an increase in confusion—and time spent navigating that labyrinthine nightmare.
Just make a new thread. Seriously, it’s that easy.
The only exception to the rule here is resurrecting a thread that deserves to be resurrected. Let’s take my earlier example about the client contacting the printer. Imagine the client discovers, after the job has been printed and the brochures have been distributed, that there’s a printing error that’s the printer’s fault. This would justify reopening the dormant thread.
However, any new job or new topic of conversation should be grounds to start a new thread, and with it, an appropriate subject line.
10. Unequal exchanges.
Unequal exchanges are a broad category of messages that I can almost guarantee you’ve encountered at some point in your career, because of how common they are.
These are best illustrated with examples. Let’s say you’ve come up with a compelling new idea for an add-on service you can sell to your clients. You write several paragraphs describing the feature, double and triple check it, then nervously send it to your boss. They write back immediately: “I’ll take a look…” and say nothing more.
Or let’s say you’re getting ready to email a client, and you’re pouring effort to make sure your email looks professional and is taken seriously. You tinker with the phrasing over and over, and land on a single paragraph of formally structured, nuanced text. You get back a reply “K. when r u free to talk?”
The person you’re emailing isn’t matching you in terms of tone, effort, detail, length, or courtesy. Obviously, these factors don’t need to be congruent in every email exchange, but when they’re dramatically off course, it can be a problem. And unfortunately for us, it’s a persistent problem in most offices.
Why It’s a Problem
Let’s look at some of the biggest issues here:
- Subtext, power, and respect. Unequal email exchanges hold significant subtext, most of which deals with the power dynamics of the relationship. If one person spends an hour drafting a formal, well-thought-out email, and the other dismisses it with a short, casual response, the latter is implicitly demonstrating some marginal authority over the former, subtly implying that the email isn’t worth their time.
Now, before you start using this tactic for yourself to assert dominance in the workplace, understand that this is also an indication of respect. Your employee’s long-winded proposal may very well not be worth your time, but you can at least put some more thought into your response by saying, “I appreciate you putting this together, but I’m afraid we’ll need to put this on hold for now.” It’s all about acknowledging the other person, and ensuring they feel heard and respected.
- Incomplete information exchange. This kind of exchange typically offers incomplete information as well. The response in my above example: “I’ll take a look” doesn’t imply anything about the sender’s regard for the idea.
It doesn’t even say when they expect to take a look. Incomplete messages like this are, at best, going to leave the other party a little bewildered, and at worst, are going to result in miscommunications that could wreck whatever project you’re working on.
- Imbalanced expectations. Exchanges like these are also a symptom of imbalanced expectations. One person may see email as a more formal medium to exchange ideas, while the other sees it as a glorified form of SMS text messaging.
For one or two responses, this won’t affect much, but if these mismatched philosophies persist throughout a professional relationship that lasts years, it could be destructive.
You don’t have to agree with the email philosophy of every person you communicate with, nor do you have to meticulously mimic the formatting and tone of all your contacts—if you’re even capable of doing this, you’ve instantly won my respect. Instead, spend an extra minute thinking about your recipient’s perspective, and if you can, accommodate them.
Show them respect by meeting their effort with some of your own, and even if you have to cut your response short, update them with complete information, which may include when you expect to get back to them.
11. Rapid-fire emails.
This habit is the tendency for someone to send multiple emails, one right after the other, as more details come in or as they think of more things to say.
For example, you might get an email that gives you a straightforward outline of the new web design project you’re supposed to be working on. A few minutes later, you get another email that says, “Oh, and by the way, make sure you look at this competitor’s website—the client loves it and wants you to use it as inspiration.” Then, a few minutes later, you get one more email on the same thread saying, “Forget the timeline I laid out in the first email, we actually need this by the end of the week.”
This one-sided exchange seems innocent enough, possibly because you’ve encountered it so frequently that you’ve accepted it as normal. But it’s bogging down your productivity, and it needs to be stopped.
Why It’s a Problem
There are a few distinct issues to deal with here:
- Action timing. This kind of add-on email assault causes problems with the timing of the recipient’s actions. For example, let’s say you get an email with instructions to start writing a blog post on popular dinner recipes. You start looking for a rotisserie chicken recipe you’ve used before, but after a few minutes of research, you get another email that explains an additional piece of information: the recipes have to be vegan. You’ve essentially wasted several minutes brainstorming, and any work you’ve committed could come undone. On a small scale, this is no big deal, but for major projects, hours or even days of work could be undone.
- Organization. Another consequence here is interference with the recipient’s method of email organization. Let’s say your recipient puts the email into a folder they use for active tasks; a new email would drag it to the inbox, and possibly force the task to be abandoned. This may only take a minute, but it still gets confusing, especially as more messages start rolling in.
- Alerts and responses. I’ve already talked about how distractions eat up your time; not only do they occupy seconds to minutes of your attention, they burn your productivity by breaking your focus (and preventing you from restoring that focus in a timely manner). These add-on emails end up sending three, four, or even more alerts for a message that should realistically take only one. Instantly, you’ve multiplied the distracting effect of your email.
It’s hard to predict when new information is going to arise, either because a client has provided it last-minute, or because you forgot to mention some important point. To remedy this, your best bet is to draft your email and save it (Gmail’s drafts are perfect for this).
Let it sit for an hour or two (if you can afford that amount of time), then give it a final review before sending. This will give you a buffer, which you can use to think of more details, wait for new details to come in, and give your draft a final review and polish.
12. URGENT emails.
Outlook and other programs allow you to mark some emails as “high priority,” which gives them a red exclamation mark in your recipient’s inbox. The idea here is that if your recipient sees a message with this ominous-looking symbol, they’ll be likely to prioritize opening that email over the other messages in their inbox. Therefore, you’ll get a faster response, and whatever emergency you think you have could get resolved a few minutes faster.
The very existence of this feature invites its abuse, and like with all the other items on this list, we’ve grown accustomed to being subjected to it. Let’s take a step back and review all the reasons why this is a bad thing.
Why It’s a Problem
I see three problems here:
- Undue stress. Glimpsing that red exclamation point can make anyone sweat. Why would you put your recipient through that? If your message is really urgent, they’ll be able to understand that—and understand why it’s urgent—so long as you have a reasonable and informative subject line. If there’s really an emergency, the last thing you want is someone in panic mode trying desperately to respond as quickly as they can.
- The “cry wolf” scenario. Let’s face it. We’ve all sent high-priority messages that weren’t really a high priority. When you do this, your recipient will feel unduly tricked; they may be irritated that they experienced a temporary surge of adrenaline for no good reason, or may feel like you’ve abused their trust by forcing them to open an email out of order. In the future, they may be less willing to agree with your priorities, and may treat your messages with extra disdain.
- Inappropriate use of medium. If there really is an emergency, sending an email isn’t going to cut it. Your recipient may be busy, so if you need their attention immediately, you’re better off contacting them through another channel. For most businesses, that means making a phone call or sending a text.
There are a few alternatives to consider:
- Texts or calls. People are much more likely to respond to a phone call or a text message than they are an email, no matter what the “priority” level of the email is. It’s entirely unrealistic to expect someone to respond to an email in mere minutes, so if you truly need that kind of turnaround time, you’re better served reaching out through a communication channel that can support it.
- Strong subject lines. Instead of indicating the urgency of your email in an ambiguous exclamation point, try to express it in your subject line. By that, I don’t mean writing a subject line like “!!!!!URGENT!!!!! READ IMMEDIATELY!!!!!,” which would carry even more problems than a simple red marker. Instead, write a concise subject that succinctly indicates the severity and nature of the problem. For example, a line like “Angry client – please advise on follow-up” or “Missed deadline: 3 alternatives” conveys urgency while simultaneously describing the problem.
- Follow-up emails. There’s a chance your email will get lost in the shuffle, no matter how clearly you write the subject line. If you don’t get a response in the timeframe you were hoping for, remember, you can always follow up—via email, or via phone or text if you need a response as soon as possible.
You don’t have to abolish the high-priority feature altogether, but you should work to minimize its prevalence using any of the above three methods (or one of your own).
13. Ambiguous expectations.
When you started working for your current employer, was there a meeting or a briefer about the standard format of internal emails? Or orientation for email etiquette? Or a list of do’s and don’ts for sending emails to clients?
I’d be shocked if you answered yes here. It’s expected that all incoming employees have some degree of familiarity with email, but beyond that, there are rarely any expectations about how to email effectively, and if there are, they’re ambiguous.
This is the same for small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike, but why are we tolerating it?
Why It’s a Problem
This one irks me for several reasons:
- Inefficiency. If you don’t set the standard early on, employees will be tempted to engage in inefficient practices (many of which I’ve covered above). Casual, thoughtless messages could clutter your inboxes, and there will be no agreed-upon response time to keep conversations moving forward.
- Inconsistency. Even worse, different teams and different individuals will all have different ideas of what an ideal company email looks like. Within those teams, individuals may be on the same page, but once they engage with someone outside the silo, all hell breaks loose. This can also be problematic with client conversations; if a single client engages with two people with drastically different email tones, it could compromise the cohesiveness of your brand (or possibly lead to miscommunications).
- Intimidation. New employees may also feel intimidated when starting the job. They may email selectively, or not at all, or may waste time polishing aspects of their messages that don’t need to be polished. In other words, they’re facing extra stress and spending extra time unnecessarily. Intimidation plays another role here, too; because there’s no singular standard to refer to or improve, employees have a tendency to stick with the status quo out of familiarity. That is to say, they’re less willing to voice their concerns about internal email standards, which means the problem may never be solved.
- Loose evolution. Your email standards provide a foundation that can be built, added to, and modified over time. If there’s no skeletal structure in place, your company’s email tone and standards will undergo a constant, loose evolution—and it probably won’t be in a direction you want it to go. Chances are, your email formats will get less organized, subject lines will get lazier, and employees will become more and more complacent with inefficient emails.
I get that most companies don’t want to spend the time training employees how to email efficiently. You feel like you have better things to do. However, even an hour of time spent getting your employees on the same page can result in hours of savings in productivity every week—not to mention a boost in morale.
My recommendation is to start with formalized documentation for your company’s email communication standards, ideally including things like:
- When it’s appropriate to use email vs. other mediums.
- What is appropriate language for email, such as the casualness or formality of the tone, as well as tolerances for emojis.
- How to structure meeting notes, project briefs, and other common archetypes.
- The appropriate response times for email.
- How and when to start email threads with multiple participants.
- When to follow up on an email that hasn’t gotten a response.
And these are just the beginning. This doesn’t have to be a 100-page book; it can be a 1-page memo with a dozen bullet points. As long as you have some formalized recognition for proper email etiquette and structure, you can prevent (or mitigate) the vast majority of these email norms and other bad habits from interfering with your business.
I admit finding and correcting these habits is a huge undertaking, and probably one that no single individual can do. But if we start working together within our teams, companies, friend groups, and families, we can start overcoming these awful norms.
If you want to learn more about how email affects your life, and how much time it really takes you, take EmailAnalytics for a whirl. Your 14-day free trial will give you detailed insights into how you’re sending emails, what types of emails you’re receiving, and how you and your team can improve in the future. Knowledge and recognition is half the battle.
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