How to Organize Your Inbox & Reduce Email Stress

The recipe for staying on top of your email is to be ruthless about what you send and receive, and to focus on how you process your inbox. Here are thirteen practices that may help you be in command of your inbox.

  1. How to Organize Your Inbox & Reduce Email Stress Turn off all new email notifications.
  2. Limit the number of times you access your email.
  3. Avoid checking your email during the first hour of the day. Work on something that requires your energy and focus.
  4. Don’t have your email software opened … keep it closed until it’s time to “do” email.
  5. When you “do” email, follow the “Process to Zero” technique. Merlin Mann, the productivity guru who popularized this technique, emphasized, “Never check your email without processing to zero.” Handle every email just once, and take one of these actions: delete or archive, delegate, respond, or defer.
  6. If you can process an incoming email in a minute or two, act on that email immediately, using the Two-Minute “Do-it-now” Rule.
  7. For any email that requires inputs or deliberation, start a reply email, and file it in the “Drafts” folder of your email software. Set aside a block of time to crank though all such draft emails.
  8. Tell people with whom you communicate the most that you intend to check your email intermittently. Encourage them to telephone or drop by if they need a quick response.
  9. If you’ve been dreading a large backlog of email, consider deleting everything that’s over three weeks old. If the contents of any of those emails were of any consequence, somebody would have appraised you of their substance.
  10. Reduce the number of emails you send. Decrease the number of people you carbon-copy on emails. Consider meetings or telephone calls for more effective interaction.
  11. Curb the number of email messages you receive. Ask to be removed from irrelevant newsgroups, and unsubscribe from marketing emails. Learn how to use the “filter” feature on your email software.
  12. Don’t get sucked into replying to every email. Reply only to those that are of relevant to your priorities. Let other communicators follow up with you if they need a reply.
  13. Empty your inbox by the end of the day and process every message.

Idea for Impact: Don’t let an overflowing inbox be a big distraction (read my article on the Zeigarnik Effect.)

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Email, instant messages, and alerts have evolved into our primary mode of communication. From project management to socializing, everything at work and in our personal lives centers on electronic messages. Many of us have found the unending tide of these messages unmanageable.

Research has shown that checking messages just a few times a day can help reduce stress and prevent the feeling of being incessantly ‘invaded’ by emails.

If you feel weary, annoyed, and unproductive from a daily deluge of messages, try the following techniques to regulate your electronic communication.

  • Turn off alerts on all your devices. Productivity studies have shown that people take 15 minutes on average to return to serious mental tasks (thinking about a project, writing reports, or debugging computer code, for example) after being interrupted by an incoming email or an instant message.
  • Maintain a zero inbox, i.e. consistently process all incoming email and get your inbox to zero messages. See my previous article on this productivity technique.
  • Set up and use subject-specific folders to hold your incoming and sent messages. This makes it easier to retrieve emails later.
  • Relieve Inbox Stress and Email Overload Do not check emails continually throughout the day. Instead, process only three times a day: once in the morning, once during lunch, and then again before going home. Don’t waste the most productive hours of your day doing email.
  • Reserve time to focus on email. Set a time limit on your activities and blast through the messages without interruption. Stop when the time runs out. (Remember Parkinson’s Law: work will expand to fill the allotted time.)
  • When you process email,
    1. If you can respond to a message in less than two minutes, do so right away.
    2. If a response may need more than two minutes or you must look up information, defer it. Leave the incoming email in your inbox or file it in a ‘Draft’ folder. Dedicate the last email session of a day to respond to such emails and clear the Draft folder.
    3. Delete, file, or delegate.
    4. Process all emails and fully clear your inbox by the end of the day.
  • Tell people you correspond with the most (your boss, employees, peers) that you check email only a few times a day. Let them know that if they need to reach you immediately, they could come over to your desk or call you. If possible, encourage them to follow your email discipline.
  • Limit off-the-clock correspondence. Don’t make a ritual of catching up on work email after dinner or during the weekends.

Idea for Impact: If your inbox is driving you crazy, some discipline can help you process—not just check—emails and mitigate some stress.

How to Email Busy People

How to Email Busy People

When you ask something of somebody, one of the cardinal rules of the “art of the ask” is to make it as convenient as possible for that person to respond to your request. This is especially true if you’re asking something of a busy person.

When you email busy people proposing a meeting, don’t give them a range of options with the intention of being considerate of their busyness.

  • Don’t be longwinded: “I’m available any time on Tuesday morning and Wednesday afternoon except from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM when I have an appointment with my dentist. Let me know when works best for you.”
  • Don’t give them a whole bunch of options (“… any time this week”) or, worse yet, don’t ask them to leaf through their calendar and suggest a time (“I know you’re busy. Let me know when you want to meet.”)

Instead, keep your ask as brief and simple as possible. Make it easy for busy people to respond by offering few choices: “How about 9:00 AM on Tuesday?” If you know their Tuesdays or mornings tend to be busy, you may propose one alternative: “Are you available on Tuesday at 10:00 AM or on Wednesday at 3:00 PM?” If they’d like to meet with you, they’ll glance at their calendar and say “OK.” If neither of your proposed times works, they’ll suggest another time.

Idea for Impact: Avoid imposing more busy work on already busy people.

What Everybody Ought to Know about Writing Better Emails

Concise Guide to Writing Better Emails

Over the last decade and a half, email has evolved into the modern organization’s primary medium of communication. One survey estimated that professionals tend to spend one to three hours per day reading and writing emails, and waste half of this time reading trying to interpret ineffectively written emails. Poorly written emails are a result of weaknesses in style and structure.

Poor style is characterized by improper spelling and grammar, meandering and complex sentences and abstract, technical or indirect language. Style is a function of formal education, developed primarily through practice.

In contrast, poor structure refers to disparity between logical sentence order and the reader’s comprehension of those sentences. Often, the central argument does not develop over the course of the email. Consequently, the email’s goal is unclear. Though poor structure is more pervasive, it is also easier to correct.

In this take-away from my “Write Right Emails” workshop, I provide a few guidelines to improve your the style and structure of your emails.

Write for Impact

  • Before you compose an email, address two key questions: (1) “Why am I writing this email?” and (2) “What do I expect the reader to do and when?”
  • Compose your email from the reader’s point of view. Make it easy for him/her to understand immediately why you have sent that message what response or action you expect.
  • Be brief. It saves everyone time and drives action. Summarize information such that your readers are more likely to read the email and actually respond. Attach all supporting material or offer to provide details if the reader is interested.
  • Make each paragraph’s first sentence as clear and persuasive as possible. Assume that the reader will read only the first sentence before deciding if he/she is interested in the second sentence and beyond.
  • In each paragraph, make your most important point first before providing details. The reader will better understand the major (abstract/summary) ideas first before he/she is presented with the minor (constituent) details.
  • Make your emails count the first time. Anticipate any missing details that could cause an extended back-and-forth. Anticipate any supplementary information the reader may need.
  • Do not rush to send emails. Dedicate time to proofread each message. You can usually improve the wording, make a point more concisely, or generally improve. Do not give your readers an excuse to misread you.

Use Great Subject Lines

  • Use Great Subject Lines State your email’s objective in a meaningful subject line. Give readers a clue as to what your email is about and, more importantly, your expected response.
  • Include two components in each subject line: [Context/Project] + [Message summary/Action required] E.g., “Need MATLAB help: how can I calculate variance,” “Competitive pricing problem: recommended solution.”
  • Avoid indistinct and elusive subject lines: “Hi,” “One more thing …,” “FYI,” “Can you do this,” or, “Help, please???”
  • Prefix the subject with ‘URGENT’ if the matter is pressing.
  • Try composing all-in-the-subject-line emails. E.g., “Friday’s lunch: rescheduled to 1:00 PM [eom]” or “Reminder: budget reports due today at noon [eom].” Within your team, adopt a few standard practices and abbreviations (e.g., EOM for end of message) in your team.
  • When replying to emails, change the subject if the thread’s topic has changed or if the original subject was too vague.
  • Do not discuss multiple subjects in a single message. Send multiple emails, each with its own meaningful subject line.

Improve your Writing Style

Improve your Writing Style

  • Keep sentences short. Use fifteen or fewer words per sentence. Use simple vocabulary. Avoid jargon and buzz words.
  • Limit paragraphs to four sentences. Each paragraph should not be more than one inch tall on a computer screen’s display.
  • Limit your entire email to one screen size; the reader should not have to scroll vertically or horizontally to read your entire email.
  • Break longer messages into bulleted or numbered form.
  • Use the active voice (e.g., “I appreciate your thoughtfulness and assistance”) and avoid passive voice (“Your thoughtfulness and assistance are greatly appreciated”). Active voice is direct, simple, and more concise.
  • Personalize your emails: Use “I,” “you,” “we,” or “Mike from Quality Assurance” as subjects of sentences instead of “our company,” or “the Quality Assurance team.”
  • Compose emails in Microsoft Word while writing, editing and proofing text. Then copy your messages to your email software.
  • In Microsoft Word’s “Options” dialog box, activate all the “Spelling & Grammar” settings. Enable the ‘Check grammar as you type’ and ‘Check grammar with spelling’ options. Select ‘Grammar & Style’ from the ‘Writing style’ drop down and click on the ‘Settings’ button. When proofing text, use “Tools”-“Spelling and Grammar” or the keyboard shortcut F7 to check spelling and grammar.
  • In Microsoft Word, turn on “Readability Statistics” in the “Spelling and Grammar” options dialog box. After the spelling and grammar check (see above tip), Word displays the Readability Statistics dialog box. For better readability in technical writing, target a Flesch Reading Ease score of 60 to 70 and a Flesch—Kincaid Grade Level of 8 to 9.
  • Do not write in ALL CAPS. This is the digital equivalent of shouting. In addition, ALL CAPS are harder to read.
  • Avoid SMS/texting language and acronyms such as ‘u,’ ‘afk,’ ‘ty,’ ‘jk,’ etc. Use normal capitalization. Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Avoid unnecessary exclamation points.

Observe Proper Email Etiquette

  • Keep language professional and courteous. Email tends to be a relaxed medium. Still, avoid humor, criticism, sarcasm and informal language. Be mindful of your tone. Email tends to transmit anger more easily than other emotions. Do not reply in anger.
  • Avoid emails that simply say “thanks,” “got it,” “see you at the meeting,” “you’re welcome,” “glad you got it,” or “Great, I’ll see you too.”
  • Be selective in your choice of recipients. Have a purpose for every addressee. Use “TO” and “CC” to differentiate between readers who have action items in the email and readers for whom the email is merely informative. Never use the “BCC” field. Do not overuse “reply to all” – include just the appropriate readers.
  • Email Etiquette When forwarding or replying to a thread, trim everything irrelevant to keep the conversation going.
  • Keep attachments small. Use alternative means of exchanging large files.
  • Avoid prolonged conversations over email. Problems are often easier to defuse using a more personal means of interaction. If you have difficulty saying something via email, pick up the phone or if possible, talk to your recipient in person.
  • Have a face-to-face meeting or telephone call if a topic (discovery and problem solving, especially) involves a lot of discussion, debate, or data exchange.
  • When requesting a routine action from an employee, copy his/her boss as a courtesy. When requesting a special (time-consuming) action from an employee, first write to his/her boss and request for the employee’s time. It is not wise to circumvent the boss.
  • Do not “copy up” (copy someone’s boss) as a means of coercion. If you have not gotten a response to an earlier email, call the person.
  • Email is a public and permanent record and could be used in legal proceedings against people and organizations. Do not state anything that may be potentially hurtful or damaging.
  • Do not use your company’s email account to send private messages. Your company owns the content of your company email account.

How to Write Email Subject Lines that Persuade

How to Write Email Subject Lines that Persuade

Writing great email Subject lines is the single most important skill you can develop to improve your effectiveness with email communication. The Subject line is the first — and occasionally the only — element of an email that readers notice. By writing a persuasive subject line, you can help your readers identify the importance of your message and drive action.

Here are a few suggestions to write a great Subject line in every email:

  • State the objective of your email in a meaningful Subject line. Give your readers a clue of what your email is about and the response you expect.
  • The best Subject lines constitute the two key attributes of the email: [Context / Project] + [Action required / Message summary] E.g., “Need MATLAB help: how can I calculate 3D distance,” “Alternator repower: recommended solution,” and “Thank you for your insightful comments at the customer forum on Friday.”
  • Avoid indistinct and elusive Subject lines like “Hi,” “One more thing…,” “FYI,” “Can you do this,” or, “Help, please???”
  • Compose the Subject line after you compose the body of an email. The process of writing the body of the email will help clarify the key message you want to convey and the action you expect.
  • Prefix the Subject with an ‘URGENT’ if the matter is urgent.
  • Do not write the entire Subject line in ALL CAPS — this is the digital equivalent of shouting. Moreover, phrases in ALL CAPS are harder to read.
  • For shorter quick messages, try composing brief, all-in-the-subject-line emails. E.g., “Friday’s lunch: rescheduled to 1:00 PM [eom]” or “Reminder: feedback reports due by noon. [eom].” Adopt a few standard conventions and abbreviations (e.g., EOM for end of message) in your team.
  • When replying to emails, change the Subject line if the context of an email thread has changed during the course of the thread or if the Subject line in the original email was irrelevant or unclear.
  • Avoid discussing multiple topics in a single email. Send multiple emails, each with its own, meaningful Subject line.

Keyword(s): email, email communication, effective communication

Email Tips: Delegating to Another’s Employee

Effective Delegation

Here are six guidelines to delegate work to an employee who does not directly report to you. These guidelines are applicable even when you delegate to one of your employees’ employees.

  • When requesting a routine work from an employee, copy her boss as a courtesy. Such requests must be components of the employee’s work plan or previously agreed to by her boss.
  • When delegating special or time-consuming work to an employee, first write to her boss and request for the employee’s time. Do not go around the boss.
  • Provide all the necessary inputs and describe what you expect, and how and when you expect results. Be specific. Ask for timely updates.
  • If you have not gotten a response to an earlier delegation email, call or visit the person. Confirm that the employee understands your expectations. Ask for a status update.
  • Do not “copy up” (copy the boss or, worse, HR) as a means of coercion. Work with the employee directly to resolve problems before elevating your concerns to her boss.
  • Avoid prolonged debates or arguments over email. Problems are often easier to defuse using a more personal means of interaction. If you have difficulty in saying something via email, pick up the phone or walk up to the other and talk to her.

More on Effective Delegation

Michael Dell’s Email Practice

Ideas for Impact: Michael Dell's Email Practice Michael Dell is the founder, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Dell, Inc. [NASDAQ: DELL], a leading computer-hardware business. Michael started his company at age 19 out of a dormitory room at the University of Texas at Austin. Last year, the Forbes magazine estimated Michael Dell’s net worth at $15.5 billion and ranked him ninth in a list of the 400 richest Americans. Michael Dell, currently 41, is the primary benefactor of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, a charitable foundation that focuses on children’s education and health programs in the United States, India, and other geographies.

In an essay entitled “Secrets from Successful CEOs,” author and investor Mark Breier identifies Michael Dell’s email communication style. This essay is part of the book “Leading Authorities in Business,” edited by Marshall Goldsmith and James Belasco.

Michael Dell’s Email Practice

Michael Dell understands that the key to email is keeping the exchanges fast and short. He replies to nearly every message in several hours. He raises brevity to an art, never sending a three-word answer when a single word (‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘thanks,’ or ‘sorry’) will do. He reduces clutter by copying only those who really need to see a copy, and he delegates ruthlessly via email: “I’m copying Jane Smith on this. She’ll follow up with you by two this afternoon.” Keeping emails fast and short facilitates action—and results.

Call for Action

Effective Email Communication Skills Email is one of the most efficient—albeit often misused—forms of communication. For higher productivity with your email, focus on these essential steps.

  • Be as succinct as possible. State the objective of your email in a meaningful subject line. Explain the context and describe what you expect from the recipient at the earliest point in the body of the message.
  • When replying to emails, include just enough of the thread or any preceding communication to help the recipient understand the context. When attaching supporting material—a report or a project proposal, for example—include an excerpt or a relevant summary in the body of the message.
  • Copy only those “who really need to see a copy.”
  • Re-read your composition before sending the message. Anticipate any supplementary information the recipient could use to take action on your expectations. Include additional references if necessary.

Attention to such details during composing emails can help your recipients grasp the intent of your communication and facilitate prompt action and quick results.

Credits: Michael Dell’s photo courtesy of Dell, Inc.