Do you live in fear of your email inbox? It is such an effective tool for information exchange that it can render us completely ineffective in our attempts to control it.
I fear that I’m going to miss the proverbial wheat because of all the darn chaff overstuffing my inbox. You, too?
Well, apparently we’re in good company. As a student of behavioral economics and finance, my ears always perk up when behavioral economist Dan Ariely has something to say. He struggled so much with managing the daily email harvest that he decided to create two apps, one that helps people send him better emails and another that helps him prioritize the emails he receives.
This inspired some colleagues and me to ask: “What are the ways that we might be contributing to the chaff in the inboxes of our business associates and friends?”
What are the often unspoken rules of good email etiquette? Here’s what we came up with…
The 10 Commandments of Business Email:
1. Thou shalt not gratuitously “cc.”
You’re on it–they know.
2. Thou shalt not needlessly reply all.
In addition to cluttering the inboxes of the needlessly cc’d (see above), avoiding the “reply all” button will also reduce the probability that you’ll fire off one of those unintended, embarrassing emails in which you roast someone you forgot to exclude on the thread. Which leads to…
3. Thou shalt not write anything in an email you wouldn’t want to be on the front page of The New York Times.
Two words: paper trail. This will also help ensure your prospective run for public office won’t be derailed.
4. Thou shalt not reply solely with “Thanks.”
Let’s just collectively agree to assume everyone is thankful, thereby eliminating 3-5% of all emails.
5. Thou shalt not bury the main point of your correspondence deep within the body, instead accomplishing as much as possible with the subject line.
Heck, see if you can limit the email to subject line only. And instead of beginning with any smalltalk, get right to the point and save the pleasantries until the end.
6. Thou shalt not forward lengthy email exchanges to a new audience with the direction, “See below.”
Now they have to read your email–and five to six others! Start a new email that summarizes and then ask your question.
7. Thou shalt not follow up an email within two hours asking, “Didst thou receive my email?”
“Such a thing is an abomination unto productivity,” says time management author Laura Vanderkam.
8. Thou shalt minimize the number of topics, questions or themes to as few as possible (preferably one).
You’re more likely to get answers to all of your questions if you only ask one.
9. Thou shalt limit the body of one’s email to five sentences.
This will help ensure you don’t receive the dreaded “TLDR” (too long; didn’t read) response.
1o. Thou shalt indicate whether a response is necessary and, if so, a desired response time.
And “if the desired response is less than four hours, thou shalt pick up the phone and call instead,” says Vanderkam.
There’s no judgement here. We’ve all sinned and fallen short on every one of these commandments–and likely will again!
Of course, there are even some exceptions to some of these rules, but just imagine how much cleaner all of our inboxes would be if we’d follow these commandments.
For more, take a look at the following resources:
- The Ariely-inspired tools Shortwhale and Filtr
- The Atlantic article “A Behavioral Economist Tries to Fix Email”
- The New York Magazine article “Stop Apologizing for the Delayed Response in Our Emails”
- The “MacSparky Field Guide to Email” ebook
Oh, and by the way–of course I want to read YOUR email. That’s the whole point! Check out my new Shortwhale page.
This commentary originally appeared May 15 on Forbes.com
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