My good friend Sarah was quoted in a National Journal article for her “meticulous email-management system,” one that allows her to leave the office every day with zero emails in her inbox.
For many of you, Sarah may seem like an anomaly. Or you think she may just not receive that many emails. On the contrary, she works as a Communications Director for a member of Congress and is flooded with emails all day. Her trick: folders. Sarah currently has 170 folders and subfolders that she organized every email into that she doesn’t deal with immediately – many of them for the different media outlets she deals with every day.
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I also leave the office every day with zero emails although I don’t use folders. This just goes to show that you can employ different tactics to achieve the same means.
If your numbers are exceptionally high, chances are many people on the other end of those emails are waiting for responses from you. Or worse, you may overlook a pressing matter simply because you accidentally overlooked it in a sea of unread emails.
How to Keep Your Inbox Numbers Low
To keep my inbox low, I’ve always used a process that my friend recommended – Do it, Delegate it, Delay it or Delete it.
Every email I open I make a quick decision to perform one of the below tasks.
I respond immediately to the email if someone asks me a question that I can answer right away. I “do it.” And then I’m done.
Other times it may be an email that’s more fitting for someone else in my office to deal with. In that case, I press the handy little “forward” button and hence“delegate it.”
There are often times I don’t have time to respond then or need to look up more information to answer their question. In that case I“delay it.” So I don’t forget about it I also flag the email and will periodically go through these marked emails throughout the day to ensure I am not missing a deadline or leaving someone hanging. Sometimes I also delay a response by asking the person for more clarification. This frees me up not to worry about their request until I hear back. I also flag these emails if I believe they are important and I may want to follow up at a later time if they do not respond.
Lastly, there is no button I love pressing more than the “delete” one. I am a neat freak and get great pleasure out of sending unnecessary or redundant emails to the trash bin. Now, of course, you must be very very careful that you will never need that email again. I’ve gotten to the point that I feel pretty comfortable knowing what I can and cannot get rid of. As a general rule, I keep every email from a reporter for future reference and almost every email from my co-workers.
Now that you’ve learned to get your inbox under control, let’s chat about how to write better emails. Emails that get opened, read, appreciated and responded to.
When responding to an email or crafting one of my own, there are a few tips that have become my Modus Operandi, as they say, over the years. For the most part, my goal is to be as helpful to the other person as I can, make things as clear as I can and be as respectful and honest as I can, for the best outcome.
1.) Use Salutations
I frequently get emails from reporters who put their complete questions to me all in the subject line and leave the body of the email blank. Most of the time I laugh and appreciate that they don’t like to waste time. However, I like to take a different approach.
When writing an email to someone I’ve never met or talked to before I always start with a “Hello” followed by their name. Sometimes I may even put a personal touch in there to remind them that we are both humans. “Hope you had a great weekend” or “It’s nice to officially meet you, even if only by email.”
Sometimes my “pleasantries” are ignored, which is fine, but more often than not I get a nice response back and we build camaraderies.
2.) Take the Time to Respond
For a while, it frustrated me that I would send very long emails to people (necessarily long because I love brevity) and only receive a “got it” or “ok” in response.
Now, I can’t change other people. In these situations, I can only change how I respond and for me, I’ve learned not to get offended by their frankness. It doesn’t mean the sender is unfriendly, doesn’t care or is “mad” at me. Some people just like to be blunt, brief and to the point!
However, it did change the way I respond to people. If I see someone put a lot of work into the information someone sends me then I will acknowledge that hard work with a thank you and that I appreciated the information. Nothing is drawn out, just giving a little recognition where it is due.
3.) Respond as Soon As You Can
Ever receive a response from someone a week later when you no longer need it? Or worse yet, never receive a response at all? If it frustrates you, chances are it frustrates other people when you do it to them, too.
I created a rule for myself that I reply to each email that requires a response within 24 hours (but I often respond in a lot less time). Even if that response is just, “Hey, I got your email. I can’t answer your question now but will look into it and get back as soon as I can.” People really appreciate it and it builds trust.
There are times I can’t give the emailer what they want (perhaps a reporter) in which case I will still try to get back to them after that initial email and tell them that unfortunately, I cannot help. In some cases, people get aggressive and start rapidly emailing me for an answer.
If I’ve done the right thing by letting them know I can’t help, I consider the matter done and will likely not respond to further requests. You don’t have to feel bad when you do this, as I did for a while. Consider the matter closed and move on. Just as a side note – this is a tactic I only use with outsiders and never someone within my own office.
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4.) Deliver Bad News with a Positive Tone
There may be times in your job that you have to deliver constructive criticism through an email or respond that you cannot fulfill a request they are asking. By avoiding words like “don’t,” “we can’t,” and “you shouldn’t” in your emails, and replacing them with more positive words you can help everyone involved feel like they are on a team and working towards the same goal. I read that it’s better to use phrases such as, “Next time you do that, would you mind doing this…” or in your case, it may be, “I’m sorry my boss won’t be available this time but we’ll try to make it work next time.”
5.) Get Creative with Requests
There have been times in my job that for various reasons, I purposely do not respond. Typically if someone is rude, unnecessarily aggressive or if I feel I always responded to their question then I will consider my correspondence with them done.
However, just a few years ago when I worked as a reporter nothing annoyed me more than not hearing back from people. If they didn’t want to do an interview or give a statement I had wished they would just tell me instead of leaving me hanging. But instead of continuing to feel frustrated I experimented with different ways of writing emails that increased my chances of hearing back.
One is writing a good subject line. Keep it short, clear and to the point.
I find, “Quick question on ____” works particularly well as it gives the impression I won’t take up too much of their time and they know exactly what I am going to ask about before they open it.
Or, “Interview on the budget vote?” Again, short, clear and to the point.
Another tip I’ve implemented came from Shaunti Feldman’s book, For Women Only: In the Workplace. It’s a book outlining the differences between men and women in the workplace. Specifically, how we can maximize our success by learning to understand the way men think in a work environment.
She explains that as women (just a generality) tend to have a little more trouble getting to the point. Men, however, like to know the objective or end goal up-front, and only then followed by the necessary details or background that will help them make their decision.
Learning my lesson
After reading that I thought about how it applied to emails. I read out a few I had sent out recently. I realized I wrote the background in several paragraphs first, and then buried my actual question or conclusion at the bottom. Even I had trouble finding it.
Now, I place my question or objective right up front. I follow it with bullets or number-points as to how I got there or background information I thought was necessary for the decision making. It’s like an inverted-pyramid for emails.
And you know what? It works great! Also, plenty of women appreciate a clean, well-written and comprehensible email, too. 😉
In summary, keep your emails quick, clean, and hones. And remember that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ still go a long way.