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Summary:

The daily email deluge is the scourge of productivity, but how can you stem the tide? Over at Six Pixels of Separation, Twist Image president Mitch Joel suggests that you should tell people in your emails how to work with you.

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The daily email deluge is the scourge of productivity, but how can you stem the tide? Over at Six Pixels of Separation, Twist Image president Mitch Joel offers his tips for handling email overload. His advice goes over some ground we’ve covered about before, such as using rules and folders/labels, but one tip really stood out to me: You should tell people in your emails how to work with you. As Joel points out, many people don’t know how to use email effectively; “They respond to everyone on an email with a bunch of people who were only cc’d and they’ll do things like send back an email that says, ‘ok,’ as if that adds any value to the chain of communication.” Joel says that you can help to address this by adding some ground rules to your email signature, such as “Please only respond back to me, the other people who are listed on this email are just there to be kept in the loop.” or “There’s no need to respond back to me, I just wanted you to see this so that you are kept in the loop.” Doing so can help to cut down on the number of unnecessary replies, and so help to keep clutter out of everyone’s inbox.

While I think Joel’s advice is useful, I’d go further and say that if you really want people to pay attention to your email ground rules, you should put them in the body of the email itself rather than in your signature, possibly as the last line of the email before your sign-off – people often don’t bother reading email signatures, particularly if they are lengthy. If the email you’re sending doesn’t  require a response, you could also add wording to the subject line (such as “FYI” or “For Information Only”) to make it even clearer. It’s also important to try to cut down on the number of unnecessarily open-ended questions you pose in group emails (“what time should we meet?” for example), as that’s much more likely to result in back-and-forth reply-all responses, again increasing the volume of email that everyone has to deal with.

While it may take a few extra seconds to formulate and type out that includes explicit instructions, you’ll be saving the time of everyone copied on the email, and over time you may actually end up educating a few colleagues on better email usage.

Looking for some more information on how to improve email efficiency? Dawn shared her favorite tips for reducing email overload recently.

Share your tips for reducing email overload below.

  1. Mitch Joel – Twist Image Friday, June 17, 2011

    The idea behind leveraging the sig file is so that you can automate some of the process. When I do this, I’ll typically leave the instructions before my actual contact info, this way it looks like it’s just part of the email vs. my sig file. The other tactic I use is leveraging TextExpander for the more common/repetitive email instructions. TextExpander is a Mac app that inserts pre-written copy trigged by shortkeys.

    1. Automating it (to an extent) is a good idea if you find it’s taking too much time, but I think this guidance really does need to be in the body of the email to be effective. Too many people have blind spots when it comes to sigs.

  2. I guess when you’re the president of the company, it ok to tell your employees your time is more important that theirs, “Here’s how you should respond to my email, because I don’t have the time or interest to deal with the response you would prefer to give,” or more to the point, “You’re to stupid to know how to respond to this, so I’m going to tell you.”

    This technique is condescending at best, and just plain rude at worst. If the worst thing this guys employees are doing is sending emails to too many people, he should be thrilled. Does he dictate the font and point size for emails too?

    This guy needs to get over himself and let his people do their job. Sounds like an opressive and micromanaged workplace.

    1. I don’t think providing some guidance as to how you expect you people to respond to your messages is rude, although I guess it would depend upon how you worded it. It’s helpful if people know that you’re not expecting a response, or what form the response should take. I certainly wouldn’t take it as condescending if someone added “Please only respond back to me, the other people who are listed on this email are just there to be kept in the loop” to the end of a message, for example.

  3. Andy Jacobson Saturday, June 18, 2011

    Chris Anderson (TED) and I have both posted about this recently. See: http://www.andyjacobson.com/?p=144

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