Think your relationship with your inbox is just fine? Avoid these email habits to make sure you’re not the sender the entire office dreads.
Of all the things you do to position yourself for greatness in your company and your career, examining the way you handle your email is probably not at the top of your list.
But ignore proper email technique at your peril! Just ask Hillary Clinton, whose recent email fiasco had people questioning everything from her political savviness to her personal ethics.
Make no mistake: the way you send, receive and deal with your email on a daily basis says more about you as a professional than you may realize. (Click here to tweet this quote.) From dumb mistakes that make you look sloppy to bad habits that drain your productivity, how you manage your inbox has the potential to seriously hold you back in your career — or give you that extra boost you need to stand out and get noticed.
Here are eight of the biggest email faux pas to avoid, and nine tips that will help make you master of your electronic communications.
Ditch these bad email habits
1. Entering the recipient’s address first
Most of us compose emails sequentially — filling in the recipient’s email address first, then the subject line, then writing the contents of the email itself. But this sets you up for some potentially embarrassing, if not disastrous, situations. Hold down the wrong key or engage in some haphazard clicking, and you can accidentally send that email prematurely — incomplete thoughts, questionable statements and all.
Respect Murphy’s Law and cover your own tail by always entering the recipient’s email address last when composing a message. This extra level of security prevents your boss from getting a half-finished update or a message full of “insert better word here” notations.
2. Committing TMI
If you can respond clearly and thoroughly to a message in two or three lines, do so. Don’t feel compelled to write a small novel to be polite or conversational. Emails are meant to convey information, and most people are incredibly busy. Convey your information as succinctly as possible and leave it at that.
This isn’t just courteous to your recipients; it helps you, too. Every time a person opens your email and thinks “TL;DR,” there’s a good chance they’ll skim your text and miss important details. So stick only to those important details, and cut all the rest.
3. Committing NEI (Not Enough Information)
No one has the time or mental bandwidth to keep track of every email conversation they’ve started or taken part in. So when you respond to someone, make sure to provide enough context they don’t have to scroll through everything that came before to understand what you’re responding to.
“Yes” is the kind of response that will force your recipient to backtrack and re-read the conversation. “Yes, I’m fine with moving the meeting with ABC Corp. to Tuesday” provides enough information they can read and comprehend at once.
4. Cryptic subject lines
A subject line like “today’s meeting” doesn’t help someone scanning their inbox to determine which messages need to be opened right away. Your subject line should be a snapshot summary of whatever message you’re trying to convey in the email itself.
If today’s meeting has been cancelled, your subject line should be “today’s meeting cancelled,” with the whys and wherefores spelled out in the body of the message. If the recipient needs to add something to the PowerPoint presentation for today’s meeting, your subject line should be “PowerPoint for today — new info needed.” And so on.
5. Replying All
When you respond to a team email requesting an update on the latest project, everyone copied on the original email should be copied on your response to keep them in the loop. But all too often, “reply alls” devolve into side discussions between one or two recipients, with everyone else unwillingly along for the ride.
Use “reply all” with discretion. Only include those who need to know, and keep your responses strictly on topic.
6. Being needy
You don’t know how often your recipient checks their messages, if they’ve scanned your message but are waiting for a more convenient time to respond, or if they’re even on the clock right now.
Don’t be that person who sends a follow-up later on in the day — or, worse, chooses another medium like calling and leaving a voicemail — to check whether they’ve had a chance to read your email yet. Once they’ve read it and are prepared to respond, you’ll know.
7. Overlooking the obvious
It’s OK to scan a message quickly to determine if it needs immediate attention or not, but when you finally sit down to compose a response, make sure you’ve read the original email thoroughly before you start composing your response. There’s nothing more annoying than someone who sends a response email pointing out a detail or raising a question that was actually already covered in the original message.
8. Disclosing sensitive information
You wouldn’t leave confidential company documents lying around for anyone to see, so be equally diligent about protecting sensitive information when sending emails. If you’re sending a mass email to a disparate group of people who may not want their email addresses broadcast to the world, make use of that “bcc” function you rarely pay attention to. Before you forward a message to a third party, read over the previous messages in the thread to make sure they don’t contain any information the new recipient shouldn’t be privy to.
Adopt these good email habits ASAP
1. Step away from your inbox
Email has a tendency to take over your day — if you let it. New messages are coming in all the time, and it may seem like no big deal to stop what you’re doing, pop into your inbox and shoot off a few responses. But before you know it you’ve wasted half the morning playing message ping-pong and you haven’t completed a single item on your to-do list.
Set specific windows of time when you can check and respond to email en masse. Three times is usually a safe bet for most people: first thing in the morning (to skim and make sure you don’t have any fires to put out); after lunch (to sit down and really deal with each message); and before you leave for the day (to make sure you’re not leaving any open issues dangling).
2. Process as you go
Don’t use your inbox as a running to-do list; it’s way too easy for messages to get overlooked or pushed to the bottom. Instead, make sure every time you open an email, you take some sort of action on it.
This could mean responding to it, deleting it, saving it to a folder for future reference or marking it for follow-up at a later time — just make sure you have a system for dealing with these follow-ups regularly so they don’t slip your radar.
3. Use filters, folders and rules
Save yourself time sifting through your inbox and spot urgent matters first by setting up rules that sort incoming messages into pre-designated folders. This keeps the most important emails top of mind and lets you review other messages — like industry newsletters and questions from your family about your dinner plans — at a more convenient time.
4. Read it again before you send
Check for errors, make sure your autofill put “Steven A” instead of “Steven B” in the “send to” field, and ensure all attachments are attached (open them up to double-check you’ve sent the right attachment, too). Also keep an eye out for tone — sarcasm, humor and other things are easy to misread if the recipient doesn’t know you and your communication style well.
5. Take a breather if you’re upset
If you feel the need to vent over a message that’s gotten you particularly worked up, open up a new draft email (addressed to no one) and spill your guts out there. Come back to this draft the next morning when you’re feeling less reactive and edit it so that it contains all the pertinent thoughts you want to express in a level-headed, professional manner. Never hit “send” when you’re upset. You’ll regret it every time.
6. Only reply when required
You may think it’s polite to send a quick “OK,” “Thanks!” or “Got it” to let the sender know you’ve received your message, but all that does is waste your time and clutter up their inbox. If an email contains a question that needs a response or information that needs to be further addressed, go ahead and hit “reply.” Otherwise, read, delete and move on.
7. Get the whole story before you respond
If you’ve been away from your inbox for a while and there’s a long series of messages waiting for you on the same subject line, don’t address any of them until you’ve read the through full thread. You could wind up responding to questions or providing answers that have already been addressed by someone else (which you’ll discover a few messages later). Get up to speed on the entire conversation before you jump in with your two cents.
8. Remember: there are other forms of communication
Other methods of getting stuff done include calling, texting and getting up and walking down the hall to knock on your colleague’s door rather than holding up an important project while you wait for an email response. If you feel the need to mark a message “urgent” to push it to the top of someone’s radar, skip email altogether and choose a more immediate method of communicating with them.
The same policy stands for issues that are simply too complex to resolve over email. A 15-minute meeting or conference call with all of your team members to hash out a problem will be lightyears more effective (and efficient) than several days’ worth of emails flying back and forth.
9. Remember: email is a permanent written record
The quick, easy nature of email makes it easy to treat it like a casual instant messaging system and forget that everything you send to or from a work address — or on a work computer, for that matter — can be seen and retained by your employer. It can also be forwarded, printed, read over someone’s shoulders or copied and pasted at will; once it leaves your inbox, it’s no longer under your control.
With that in mind, avoid idle gossip, snarky comments, NSFW language and other content you wouldn’t be comfortable saying directly in front of your boss.
Have you committed any of the emails sins above? Share your tips for avoiding them in the comments.
Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.