Shorter Email: Productivity Help or Hoax?


Not that long ago, shorter email hit the radars of many web workers. The site suggests that, since email takes so long to respond to, we should consider cutting our responses down to two sentences.

There are sites at,, and that provide similar advice for those who feel that two sentences might be cutting things a bit fine (pun wholly intended).

The idea is that, whatever number we choose, we can apply the philosophy to every email we send. The sites even provide explanatory text that we can paste into our email signatures, presumably so recipients know what’s going on, and can find out more if they want to.

It sounds great, right? Cut your email replies down to a couple of sentences and everything’s peachy: you’ll plow through that inbox super-fast and be able to get onto the real work that you have to do a whole lot sooner. Productivity will soar! At the very least, email won’t be such an enormous burden…

Shorter Email in Action

Recently, I had an issue that I needed to raise with a client. I wrote him an email explaining what the problem was, why it was a problem, and proposing some interim solutions. My email wasn’t short — it totaled 350 words, including salutation and signoff.

In reply, my client sent me two short sentences. Each sentence responded to a single point I’d made in my email — his response overlooked basically all the information I’d included and the questions I’d asked. Since I work remotely, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next. Had he misinterpreted what I’d written? Should I reply and reiterate my concerns more clearly? Should I tie him up on IM or the phone trying to get answers to the questions I’d asked? His email certainly seemed dismissive; I didn’t feel very confident about raising these issues again.

Later, I discovered he was applying the philosophy to his email. Had he included this link in his email signature, and had I seen it, I probably would have been more perturbed than relieved. Why? Because I still needed answers, and didn’t know if or how I was going to get them.

Shorter Email Shortfalls

Will shorter emails really save you time?

Many of us aren’t born editors, or even born writers. If you’re not adept with language, shortening your email replies may actually take more time as you select the key point in the sender’s message that you’re going to address and then try to compose a reply in two (or three, or five) short sentences.

By failing to address all the points that the sender has raised, you’ll likely prompt a phone call, IM or subsequent email exchange, so perhaps you’re simply swapping the time you used to spend responding to email to time spent on the phone.

But these nitty-gritty details ignore the elephant in this discussion: clear communication. Shorter doesn’t necessarily mean clearer or better. If you’re managing a remote team or collaborating with distant colleagues, communication via basic means like email is often crucial to harmony as well as actually getting the work done.

When my contact failed to even acknowledge the issues I’d raised about his project at the start of the engagement, I began to wonder what kind of project manager he was going to turn out to be, and where this project was ultimately headed. That kind of contractor discomfort is undoubtedly not the kind of feeling any of us want to engender at project kick-off. At best, it will take time to ameliorate. At worst, valuable team relationships could be undermined.

Shorter Email … Where Appropriate

I’m all for shorter email, and there are undoubtedly times when we can reply effectively with a few well-chosen sentences. We all have particularly wordy contacts who like to write email-essays every time they send something through to us. But in my work, I expect there will always be emails — or colleagues — that warrant more than a few sentences.

Applying productivity tips or advice across the board in your work, without adaptation to your circumstances or needs, may do more harm than good. Has a productivity philosophy or technique ever let you down?

Image by stock.xchng user statianzo.

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