Seven e-mail patterns for more efficient work

Like you – I get (and send) more e-mail at work than I would like.  E-mail is a great communication tool, but it's hard to manage.  Many add-on tools and processes exist to help people manage their own e-mail, but I've adopted some processes that (I hope) are helpful to the people who are RECEIVING the e-mails that I send.  

A core principle of great communication is that we must meet the recipient of our message where they are.

  • In education – this means we focus on the needs of the STUDENT rather than the needs/skills/ knowledge of the teacher.  
  • In health care – this means we focus on the needs/readiness/goals of the PATIENT rather than the skills/knowledge/bias of the provider(s).
  • In journalism, fiction, poetry, art – the creator is most sucessful when they focus on expressing things in a way that will be MEANINGFUL the audience.
  • In software and technology design – the best products understand and ANTICIPATE the needs of the intended user.

So in e-mail – how can we help the recipient(s) who already have 329 unread messages in their inbox.  We need to help them understand what we expect them to do with this message – so they can "done" it right away and get on with their day.

Seven Rules for Sending E-Mail

  1. Always clearly define an "owner" for a requested action.   If you are asking for something to be done – only one person should be in the "To:" line – and you should be clear that this person is the one you're asking to be responsible for getting it done.    
  2. Prepend "FYI" messages with "FYI-" in the subject line.  This lets the recipient know that they an review it later – or that reading it will be quick and won't necessarily cause new work.  If you are not asking anyone to do anything – then there is no task for anyone.  An "FYI" e-mail just informs others of something that they may need to know – so that they can (if they so choose) incorporate it into their future decision-making, or so that they are not surprised.  You may find that you often send "FYI" notes to your boss.  A wonderful mentor once taught me never let your boss be surprised.  An "FYI" note should be short and clear.  If someone has to scroll an FYI note when it shows up on their screen – it's probably too long.
  3. Private messages should be clearly identified with "DNF" (Do Not Forward) in the Subject Line.  This is clear request to your recipient(s) that you want the information in the message to remain private. Use this sparingly and with people you trust – since of course there is nothing that technically prevents them from sharing your message.  Nonetheless – "DNF" makes it very clear to the recipient that you trust them with this confidential information, and that you want them to keep it to themselves.  Use this sparingly.
  4. Use Whitespace.  The "return" key is your friend.  It's much easier for your recipient to read a message (especially on a smartphone) when you use short paragraphs of no more than three sentences.
  5. Use spaces or hyphens for numbers greater than four digits. English readers have a hard time keeping more than a handful of digits in working memory.  Conference lines often have a dial-in number and then a four to eight digit access code.  While you may have memorized the access code – your recipient has not – and will struggle as they finger it into their phone if you don't break it up into three or four digit chunks.   Extra credit here for adding the number in a form that smartphones can parse with one "press" on the screen.

    Blackberry, iPhone and Android can all parse a sequence where the conference line follows (with no spaces) the dial-in number and a lower-case "x" like this:  800-123-4567×123-456-7890.   Note that you can/should still use hyphens here so the humans reading this number can do so easily too.

  6. Use "out of office autoreply" sparingly.  Offer clear feedback for when you will be able to return messages (not just when you will be online again), who is your delegate while you are offline, and how you can be reached in an emergency.  People don't need to know if you are "away on business" or the name/location of the conference/meeting you are attending or where you will be on vacation.  Keep such details out of the "autoreply" message. 
  7. Keep it short.  "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." – Blaise Pascal.  Take the time to make it short.  This shows respect for your reader and their time.