Email. Can't live with it. Can't get your job done without it. Am I right? Last year we sent over 2.5 billion emails. And here's the bad news. In spite of a good amount of loathing, that number is only expected to grow. The volume is an issue, as is the time you spend on it. In fact, reports say you check it about 36 times per hour. 36 times. In a single hour. Top image by onivelsper (Shutterstock).
Once you begin dabbling with what's in your inbox, it takes about 16 minutes to refocus your attention on your other work. Oh, and if you need a doc that's buried in your email somewhere, it takes you about two minutes to find it. Do the maths: This quickly adds up to a plague on your productivity.
You need it to do your job. You can't just ditch it like a bad habit. In fact, it's no doubt something you rely on heavily to get information, approval or answers from colleagues so that you can get work accomplished.
But if you aren't clear about what you want from others when you're sending email, or if you don't ask good questions, remember that 36 times per hour? Yeah well, watch that estimate increase substantially. I doubt that sounds appealing. Here are four tips you can use to minimise and speed up your exchanges and communicate better than ever.
1. Clarify Your Question
Have you ever tossed an idea out to a colleague and ended with, "Thoughts?" If your goal is to get input from someone on a pressing deadline, project direction or a recommendation on options, you've got to give him something more specific to work with. After all, he doesn't want to spend any more time trying to decode your message than you want to spend reading his response.
If you've just sent a plan that needs action, for example, instead of ending with the open-ended and vague, "Thoughts?" ask a specific question, like, "What will it take to realistically implement this plan by next week? Let me know if there's anything I can do to get it going ASAP." Your colleague'll be able to respond quickly and directly, and you'll get a much higher quality response.
2. Cut to the Chase
Sarah, the Type A project member you work with frequently, wants everything weeks ahead of time. She's at it again. You get an email for a deliverable with a ridiculously short deadline. You're frustrated and tempted to respond with, "Can you give me more time on that project?" with the hope of renegotiating the deadline. If you do, it's going to take half a dozen more responses to resolve the timeline alone.
Instead, tell your colleague what you have the capacity to do, and leave it at that. "Hey Sarah, I've got three other prioritised projects in my queue now. I will get this done by end of day next Thursday. If I'm able to get it done sooner, I'll let you know. Thanks for your patience." Boom. Done.
3. Stop Soliciting Questions
Some messages generate unnecessary mail because you unwittingly invite responses. To avoid that, stop closing with, "Does this make sense to you?" Rather, say "Let me know if you have questions." If the receiver has a query, he'll let you know; otherwise, he'll know that no response is necessary.
You could also close with something like, "Let me know if we are not aligned on this," or "Let me know if you want to talk about this further." This concise language makes it clear that the conversation is closed unless there's an issue on the receiver's end.
4. Don't Neglect the Title
The subject line of your message is efficiency gold. Use that real estate to give your reader a heads up about how much attention they need to spend and when. Head those excess emails at the pass.
Use your title to indicate urgency, the deliverable and the timeline. For example, a title could read something like, "Action needed by noon Friday | Acme project due next week."
Now your reader knows that this is going to require some attention. She's aware that there's a deadline for responding and work that she needs to be focusing on for completion next week. That single, concrete statement prevents a ton of back and forth.
Given how much time and attention email requires, both as a sender and a receiver, you can see how a few simple techniques will help you send messages that generate fewer responses in return and improve the overall communication between you and your co-workers or clients. Wouldn't that be cool? When you make your communication super efficient, you'll not only feel more in control of your inbox, your colleagues will appreciate how efficient you're helping them be as well.
But, keep in mind that sometimes your best bet is simply to take the conversation offline. As a rule of thumb, if you can't resolve the issue in three email exchanges, or miscommunication is occurring because of a crazy-long thread, propose a live conversation so you can resolve the matter quickly.