Over the last decade the use of e-mail both for business and personal reasons has become ubiquitous. However, in my opinion, many people still use e-mail in a less than optimum fashion. E-mail used properly is a tremendous business tool and e-mail used improperly can be frustrating at a minimum, or career ending at worst. With nine locations of my current company, 15 direct reports, serving on three outside boards, (not to mention my personal e-mail) I usually get around 250 e-mails per day. Every IT person who looks at my Outlook folders and data files says I am among the heaviest users of e-mail they have ever seen. Given that, here are some tips I’ve accumulated in about 20 years of heavy e-mail use:
- Make sure the subject of your e-mail accurately reflects the content of the e-mail. This may seem obvious but I find that a lot of the e-mail I get either has no subject (drives me nuts) or the subject doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the e-mail. Ensuring that the subject of the e-mail is indicative of the content not only helps you decide which e-mails to open first but makes finding e-mails much easier when you look for them in the future.
- Change the subject line of an e-mail if you respond to an e-mail but change the subject. Sometimes I send a person an e-mail and it causes them to think of something else and they just click reply without changing the subject line or starting a new e-mail and ask me about a totally different topic. If I need to find that e-mail in the future, it is extremely time-consuming because the subject line doesn’t reflect the content.
- Click “reply all” sparingly. Yes, sometimes every person copied on the original e-mail needs to be kept apprised of the content of each and every future e-mail but that is exceedingly rare. Before clicking “reply all”, think if each person copied really needs to get your reply. Also, before you say anything controversial via e-mail be doubly sure before clicking “reply all”. See career ending e-mails above.
- Use your e-mail program’s spellcheck feature. With the advent of spellchecking programs there is no excuse for misspelled words. Go to the “Options” area for your email program and check the following boxes: “Spellcheck all e-mail before sending”, “Spellcheck upper case words”, and “Check spelling in subject line”. If you do that you will not send e-mails with misspelled words any longer (provided you use words in the right context).
- Set up multiple e-mail signatures. If you use Outlook take a few minutes to set up multiple e-mail signatures and then use the appropriate one for each e-mail you’re responding to. I have found that my responses largely consist of, “OK. Thanks.”, “Please update me on the status of this”, “This is past due, please reply immediately”, “Thank you for your interest in our company but we have no openings at present”, and my formal business signature with my full name, title, phone numbers, and address. By taking the time to set up multiple signatures you can breeze through e-mails in a fraction of the time it takes to type each of those responses.
- Set up folders in Outlook. I have over 400 folders in Outlook and I drag e-mail I may need to refer to in the future into the appropriate folder. This may not seem like a profound thought to you, but I have seen many, many people who have several thousand e-mails in their inbox because they have never taken the time to set up folders. Setting up folders and then using them appropriately saves time and frustration when you need to refer to an old e-mail.
- Set up multiple e-mail addresses. I have my work e-mail address, a home e-mail address, an AOL address, a Gmail address, and a Hotmail address. I use various addresses with various types of people and companies. I especially use my AOL and Hotmail addresses when buying things from catalogs or signing up for newsletters so that e-mails from those parties don’t clog up my work e-mail box. I check those addresses only periodically.
- Blind copy yourself on e-mails on which you need to follow-up. Unfortunately, only a few of the people that report to me complete tasks by the assigned due date. Because of this, when I send out an e-mail requesting a response by a certain date I blind copy myself. When I get my copy in my e-mail box I move it to “Tasks” in Outlook and select a follow-up due date, normally seven days hence. By doing this, when I check my tasks every morning, anyone who hasn’t responded by the assigned due date shows as past due and gets a follow-up e-mail from me. The original e-mail is at the bottom of the task so I don’t have to go to their folder, search for the appropriate e-mail, and resend it.
- After three e-mails, pick up the phone or meet face-to-face. I have found that after three e-mails on a subject you have generally reached the point of diminishing returns and it’s better to either call the person you have been e-mailing or set up a face-to-face meeting. Otherwise, you build e-mail string several feet long and just get frustrated in the process.
These are just a few tips I’ve picked up by using e-mail extensively for almost 20 years. What other tips do you have share with my readers?
© Copyright 2011 by Jim Sobeck. All rights reserved. This information may be reproduced as long as full credit is given to the author.