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Writing quick and actionable emails

One of the things I do a lot on a daily basis is write emails. I suspect it's the nature of the job that communication would be a primary function that I should be able to perform well. There's certainly an art to this form of writing which is very different from other kinds of messaging. If you've ever wondered why you'd want to learn to write emails well, consider the following computations:

  • If you spend 2 minutes writing an email and you need to send 10 of them, that's already 20 minutes. This doesn't count the time reading the email, formulating a response, and figuring out what else you need to do after responding to the email.
  • If you write 10 minutes crafting an email and send 10 of them then that's a 100 minutes (1 2/3 hours). This doesn't include editing the email, so it's a lower-bound.
  • If you receive 100 emails and read each one for 2 minutes and reply to 10%, then you're spending 200 minutes on 100 emails reading and anywhere between 20 minutes to 100 minutes responding. That's a lower bound of 220 minutes (3 2/3 hours) just on email.

That's a lot of time!

No wonder folks who live in their inboxes feel like they're productive because a good part of their day ends up managing email. I used to be one of these folks that kept "inbox zero" but upon reflection I thought there ought to be a better way -- and it turns out it's possible to do email differently. Here's some that I've learned in the past 10 years of working with email.

Use templates

A dirty secret I have is that I use templates when I'm drafting emails. It ranges from a document from which I can copy-paste from to a Gmail feature that allows me to create email templates. Sometimes it's an outline that I work from so that I don't need to think about the structure on the spot, and I pay for the cost of drafting the template once up-front and gain the benefits in the future. This is great if you find yourself sending emails that have a pattern to them. In my case I find that I send emails that are:

  • Follow-ups to tasks. I have a two templates for these, one's a reply to an existing conversation and to start a new conversation. I vary it from time to time depending on whether there's context I need to provide or whether it's a status check.
  • Accomplishment updates. When the team hits a milestone, I usually send out an email calling it out to the team and to our users/customers and stakeholders. I send these often enough that I do use a template that helps me remember the details.
  • Introductions. Thinking about what to include in an introduction has to be done ahead of time so I usually have introduction blurbs for folks on my team that I'm introducing to other folks. If it's a self-introduction then I write those on the spot, but usually the act of connecting people together across organisations happens often enough that I use a template for it.

My templates are usually outlines and questions that need answering, so that I can think about what's important to include in the email ahead of time and answer the questions when I'm drafting it. In a way it helps me engage with my email as a reader.

Follow the Ws

At the very least, answer the following questions in order when relevant:

  1. Why should I read this email?
  2. Who is sending this email? Who is this email intended to be read by?
  3. What is this email about? What should the reader do about this email?
  4. When and Where is an event going to happen, or a deadline supposed to be met?
  5. How should the action be performed (through a link, with a reply, etc.)?

These are deliberately asked from the reader's perspective, so that when writing the email you remember the time that the recipient will take to read it. If you estimate it's going to take longer than 2 minutes, then it's probably better as a document that is linked from an email.

Ask nicely

There's a school of thought that proposes that business/professional email be emotionless and dry. It could be that but it doesn't mean the tone you set would be a rude or demanding one (unless those are the kinds of emotions you'd like to convey). When you need someone to perform an action for you, a "please" or "thanks" in the right place shows that you're communicating with the human on the other side of the message, rather than the role the human plays. Remember that until the robots take over, humans are still on the reader end of these messages so please be nice to your fellow humans.

Make it easy to make a decision

There are two decisions that you can help the recipient of the email you're writing:

  1. Should they continue reading?
  2. Should they do what you're asking them to -- whether to respond or perform a different action?

If you can answer these questions for them in the beginning of an email, the better it is for the reader.

For example: if your email will take longer than 2 minutes to read, show that you've taken a reader's time into account by writing your message in a shared document or below a summary.

Another way to answer question 2 is to make the choices really simple. If you have multiple options, present two or three and keep it open for discussion. It's better if you have a way of collecting responses through a form that feeds a spreadsheet. Ultimately make sure that whatever decisions are going to be made through email that it's clearly defined and that it's unambiguous.

10 years of email

Recently I came back from 3 weeks of vacation and found myself in the midst of hard-to-read emails and a trick I picked up was declaring email bankruptcy. I filtered it by subject (only those that were descriptive and actionable were the ones I read) then by sender (who are the important people I need to read messages and respond to) then by recency (more recent emails first). I gave myself 4 hours to go through the emails and by the end I called it quits and archived all the emails I had missed and were unread.

If anything, I learned that it's OK not to read all the emails if you only have so much time for it. If you absolutely have to write email, then hopefully the tips above would be helpful to you too.

Do you have other tips on how you manage your email?


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