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Cut Back on Time Spent Sending and Receiving Email

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Email can make communication easier, but it can also drain your time. Learn how to process incoming email and write outgoing email in order to save time.

According to a survey from 2005, employee interviews revealed that time wasted on email caused an enterprise with 10,000 employees to lose an estimated $152 million in wages per year.

Email clearly has its downsides. Unclear emails distract employees from important work-related tasks, cloud communication channels, and often create extra work. Avoid the pitfalls of email by following the suggestions below.

How Incoming Email Can Waste Your Time

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There are many types of email messages that can waste your time. Those that:

  • Could be cut down from multiple messages and condensed into comprehensive one
  • Don’t directly relate to you
  • Do relate to you but not in a direct way, which leaves you unsure of how or if you should respond (and eats up time)
  • Do not direct you to take some action (which is unproductive)
  • Distract and/or encourage you to waste time on the web
  • Aren’t suitable for the email, and make more sense through a dynamic communication channel such as a business meeting or some format that’s more suitable for the content (like an information-rich stand alone document)

How to Process Incoming Email Efficiently

In order to read and process emails efficiently, you need to focus on two things — figuring out the message of the email (or lack of) and deciding on what action to take in response.

Step 1: Figure Out the Message (Or Lack Of)

Whenever you read a new email, take as little time as possible to figure out:

  • Whether the speaker is addressing you directly or indirectly
  • Whether the speaker has told you what they expect of you
  • Whether that’s done in a clear manner
  • Whether the overall message is relevant to you
  • Whether the overall message seems appropriate, given the context of your relationship to the sender (or lack of, if they are trying to initiate a business relationship for instance)

This will help you ascertain what the message of the email is, and how you want to respond. That is, if you intend to respond in the first place.

It’s especially important to note if the speaker is doing one or more things that can lure you into wasting precious time, such as:

  • Being unclear about what they are trying to say
  • Using language in a confusing or euphemistic manner to avoid speaking in concrete terms (e.g. “I think we need to have a heart to heart at some point” versus “Can you call me this week so we can talk on the phone about something important?”)
  • Rambling or going off topic
  • Including information that is none of your business, inappropriate, offensive, or incoherent
  • Cc or bcc’ing you on messages that aren’t relevant to you
  • Repeating the same message through various emails, or repeating what’s already been covered in previous communications other than email
  • Writing about something that you have already discussed and resolved — in a forgetful or careless manner

In these types of situations, be especially careful to respond in an effective way that minimizes how much time you spend on the communication. Because it’s easy to let the above ambiguous email scenarios drain your time.

Step 2: Decide on What Action to Take

After you know what the message is about, figure out the most productive way to respond. Here are some typical responses:

  • Shifting the conversation to a better communication medium such as telephone and conference calls
  • Responding to a recurring question asked by multiple people — not through email — but through a more information-rich medium that can be shared, such as a Google Doc
  • Not responding to messages that don’t make it clear what the speaker expects from you (even if it feels a bit impolite)
  • Addressing unclear messages with direct and brief concrete questions, such as, “When you would like to have the report completed by?” or “How would you like me to contribute to this project?”
  • Picking up the phone and calling the person anytime drama or communication breakdown starts to occur — drawing it out through email will only take longer and may intensify the conflict

Step 3: Get Back on Task

Most importantly, after you respond to an email (which may consist of not responding and instead deleting the message), you need to get back on task. Move on to the next email waiting in your inbox, or switch gears and get back to actually doing work rather than responding to other people’s requests.

How Sending Email Can Waste Your Time

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Additionally, there are many types of email message you send that can waste your time. Those that:

  • Are strung out unnecessarily into several messages, each of which takes time and thought to tailor, instead of one comprehensive one
  • Don’t directly relate to the recipient, which is a waste of effort on your part
  • Aren’t clear enough, and draw out into long email conversations and/or misunderstandings, or no productive action at all (which means you’ll have to spend time initiating the conversation again later)
  • Do not direct the recipient to take some action, which is unproductive
  • Distract and encourage the recipient to waste time on the web — which means it encourages the same of you
  • Aren’t suitable for the email format, but better communicated through real-time conversation or through an instructional or information-rich document such as a manual, blog article, FAQ page, company report, or PowerPoint presentation

How to Send Email Efficiently

In order to write emails that don’t waste your time in the long run (not to mention your recipient’s time), you need to focus on five things: communicating a clear message, requesting your recipient take actionable steps, using good structure, editing before you hit send, and following up effectively.

Step 1: Get Clear on Your Message

Before you even draft an email, you need to get crystal clear on the message. Determine:

  • What you want to communicate
  • Why you want to communicate it
  • What action you want your recipient to take
  • How you can best persuade them to take such action

Here are some common reasons to send email:

  • To remind someone of a deadline
  • To give someone written instructions on a task
  • To ask a quick question that can be answered adequately through writing
  • To answer a quick question that can be answered adequately through writing
  • To pass along time-sensitive information
  • To offer available dates for scheduling a meeting
  • To follow up after a meeting and show appreciation

In all of these examples, except for the last one, you want your recipient to take some action (even if that’s just replying to you).

Sometimes the action doesn’t seem like an action. Maybe you want to:

  • Pass along a tip for your co-worker
  • Let your friends know you landed safely at your travel destination
  • Give a brief update on how you are doing at your new destination and how you can be reached in the next several weeks

In each of these situations, you’re not telling your recipient to take a certain action. However, it is implied that they are not expected to take any action, as long as you give the email proper closure, or at least by signing your name. They understand that the communication can easily end with your email; that they don’t need to respond.

Step 2: Request Your Recipient Take Actionable Steps

To write effective emails that save you time, you need to make them actionable. And you need to make sure that your recipient is clear on what action is expected of them.

If you’re not aiming for this, but are trying to spell out your life story or explain why you’re holding out for the next iPhone model instead of getting the latest one, you can forget about saving time because pen pal writing takes a lot of thought and time.

Focus on the following when making email actionable:

  • Setting deadlines
  • Outlining contingency plans
  • Offering potential options for the next course of action (e.g. times you are available for an in-person meeting, locations you’re available to meet at)
  • Providing an opinion when asked for one
  • Making a request that’s suitable for writing and is actually more convenient that using another mode of communication
  • Providing a set of directions for a task that your recipient has agreed to carry out

Be proactive and assertive when outlining actionable steps. Avoid asking open-ended questions unless there’s no other option. Because open-ended questions are the opposite of actionable content.

Here are some examples:

  • Instead of asking your recipient to give you their schedule (and wasting an email in the process) — start out by sending them your available meeting times.
  • Instead of asking your recipient what they think about a certain business decision, outline the potential decision and request construct feedback; that way they won’t have to come up with something on their own and will instead have something to work with

You keep email actionable by providing clear instructions to the reader and keeping the content actionable rather than open-ended.

Most importantly, you need to make sure that whatever action you expect from your reader is clearly communicated. Don’t assume they know that you want to set up a meeting this week just you offer your available times. Don’t assume they know what job task your set of instructions applies to. State it out explicitly and kindly let them know what you want them to do.

Step 3: Create Good Structure

One you have your message clearly defined and you’ve made it actionable, it’s time to organize it such a way to convey that clarity and your actionable requests.

Paragraphs: A general rule to follow is keeping paragraphs under five sentences. It’s not only difficult to focus on long paragraphs while web reading, but clunky paragraphs give the recipient opportunity to lose focus and perhaps miss out on the most important points. This then leads to sloppy or redundant responses, which clouds the communication channel.

Sentences: Use the active voice when writing sentences. Keep sentences short and to the point. Avoid going off on tangents or unnecessarily explaining your reasoning or feelings about things. Instead, stick to the facts and what action you request that your recipient take.

Words: Try not to use big words or slang, unless you know your audience will understand them. Avoid jokes and cultural references that might be misunderstood, because anything that can be easily misinterpreted is a potential barrier to effective communication.

Avoid extra words and qualifying phrases. “Given the current situation in which this is currently happening, I think that it might be wise to…” is a qualifying statement that not only wastes words and time, but distracts from the real message. Instead, just state your recommendation without having to qualify it.

Another example: “I was wondering if I could ask you…” Cut this phrase out and simply ask the question. It will also increase your confidence, because you won’t subconsciously seek permission to communicate proactively.

Punctuation: Keep punctuation simple. Qualifying words and phrases are only efficient when used to establish courtesy upon initiating communication with someone you’d like to have a business or personal relationship with. In such cases, you don’t necessarily want to be to forthcoming, but use some polite phrases to show respect for their time.

Minimize commas use — this naturally helps you keep sentences short. Avoid lazy text-inspired speak, with overuse of dot-dot-dot’s and consecutive commas. Instead, punctuate your sentences with proper English and utilize contractions when it makes sense, because they make reading flow better.

Additionally, consider punctuating lists with bullet-points, and using a line of dashes to break up major sections (which may include one or more paragraphs).

Bullet-points and section breaks enhance web readability, as well as help you organize your message more clearly.

Step 4: Edit Before Sending

Before you send an email, take 1-2 minutes to read it out loud. This will help you catch mistakes or notice awkward parts that you wouldn’t normally say in-person. Strip away those extra words and simplify punctuation. Bullet out lists and cut down on your paragraphs.

When you can answer the following questions with a “yes,” then you’re ready to hit “send”:

  • Is the message clear?
  • Are expectations actionable and clearly stated?
  • Will my recipient be able to successfully receive my message? Success means that they know what response is expected of them.
  • If the roles were reversed, would I be able to successfully receive this message?

Step 5: Follow Up Effectively

Additionally, be proactive in following up with your emails. If someone doesn’t respond to a direct request, don’t waste time wondering what happened. Instead, send a polite but direct follow-up email to check in with them. Apply the principles listed above. And don’t waste too much time trying to get a response; if the recipient isn’t communicating with you, know when to move on or approach them in-person instead.

Use Email to Save Time

Email can save you a lot of time if you know how to use it efficiently. And this goes for both sending and receiving messages.

Email is best used to deliver actionable messages that are adequately communicated via writing. If you take advantage of the benefits of email and avoid the many time-wasting pitfalls, it serves as powerful tool.

Melissa Karnaze is an experimental psychology masters student. She's interested in how we can use technology with greater mindfulness, writes about emotional productivity at Mindful Construct, and loves how the web is changing the world.

  • Published 08/11/10

Comments (2)

  1. Margaret Bumbry

    Great common sense article. I work for the Government and I wished that they would adopt this philosophy. My inbox overflows.

  2. Sanford Silverburg

    I would like to find a usable filter in order to block internet fraud emails, i.e., offers to share in millions of dollars by providing my bank account number.

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