How to Get People to Send You Less Email

I don’t believe in being down on email and complaining about how much email we receive (although on a bad day it can be tempting). Keeping on top of your email is a way of serving people.

But, except in rare instances, email is not the primary task of your job. There are many other things you need to be doing, and email already takes up enough time. So it is smart to do what you can to reduce your email volume and thus make sure, as much as possible, that you aren’t spending unnecessary time on email.

The way to reduce email volume is simple: Send less email, send better emails, and use meetings effectively.

1. Send Less Email

As with most things in life, the first place to look is not to external factors, but to ourselves. Email tends to create more email. Send less and you will receive less.

The unfortunately titled but helpful book The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You (just ignore their advice they give on filing email) notes that this is supported by research:

Research shows that for every five emails you receive, three require a response. This means that for every five emails we send, people send back three. I call this the boomerang effect. So if you eliminate just one out of every five outgoing emails, you’ll begin to receive roughly 12% fewer emails (p. 17).

How do you send less email? Here are some things you can do.

Ask Yourself: “Is this Email Truly Necessary?”

This is the highest impact thing that you can do. I’ve been guilty of sending off emails that articulate an idea I’m half-way thinking about, only to put in motion a premature discussion that sucks up time unnecessarily. The discussion was unnecessary because the issue didn’t need to be discussed yet, and there weren’t enough details to come to an effective conclusion. The best approach in these instances is: wait.

There are lots of other types of unnecessary emails. The fundamental thing to do here is to put yourself in your recipient’s shoes. Think of all that they probably have on their plate for the day and all the other emails that they are getting. Then ask, “Is this email going to be worth their time in light of everything else that they have going on?” You might realize that the email is actually unnecessary, or that what you actually need to do is clarify and sharpen the email (that is, write a better email — on which, see below).

Limit Use of Reply All

When you are one of many recipients, your default should be to respond only to the sender, rather than to everyone. So often we do the opposite. Only hit “reply all” if you’ve consciously concluded that it is truly necessary.

Limit Use of CC:

Most “cc:’s” are impositions on people’s time. To cc: someone breaks the rule of being clear as to the purpose for which you are sending the email to the person. What is the person supposed to do with this? Just “keep it on their radar?” They have 1,000 other things going on. Often, a cc: ends up being an accidental way of “jumping the cue” (see next point).

I don’t want to say that it is never necessary to cc: someone. Just keep it to a minimum.

Don’t Jump the Cue, Except with Praise

When you are working with someone on an issue and they aren’t in line with you the way you want, don’t email their boss. Even with a simple “update.” Keep working with the person. If you do need to talk about things at a higher level, mutually agree on that.

The biggest way this mistake happens is through the cc: function. You’ve been dialoguing with person X on subject A, and after a while decide to add the person above them in the “cc:” field so they can “get up to speed” with the discussion. Don’t do this. It takes up unnecessary time on the part of the person copied, and the person you’ve been dialoguing with is not going to be too happy.

The one time that you should jump the cue is with praise. If person X has done a great job on something, then it is a great idea to email their boss and cc: them, or to email them with a cc: to their boss. This is something everyone will appreciate.

Limit Use of FYI

This is highly related to the principle of limiting the instances in which you cc: people. Many cc:’s are FYI’s, and just like most cc:’s are unnecessary, so are most FYI’s.

Now, not all FYI’s are unnecessary. You just need to do it right. Instead of forwarding someone a long discussion thread to “update them,” for example, send them a one sentence email you write yourself that gives them the essence of things.

People appreciate real updates like that — updates that truly update them in a quick sentence or two. But they don’t appreciate long discussion threads that they have to wade through in order to figure out what “update” you want them to have.

2. Send Better Emails

So the first principle of getting less emails is to send less emails. The second principle is also in your control: Send better emails.

Why We Often Don’t Send Better Emails

The biggest problem with email is that the cost to the sender is low, but the cost to the recipient is high. It takes almost no effort, for example, to type up a lengthy, 750 word email and ask the person “what do you think?” or some other action (or muddled set of multiple actions). So the sender has it easy, but the receiver might then stuck with a wall of text to read and ambiguous actions to clarify.

When the cost of something is low, you get more of it. When the cost is high, you get less of it. The problem here is that the low cost is on the receiver’s end. So the tendency is to create more emails, and the receiver then bears the cost of those. Since the cost is largely on the recipient’s end, the sender does not feel that and hence does not adjust his behavior accordingly.

How to Send Better Emails

The solution is to make a conscious attempt to think from the other’s perspective. Since you don’t bear the cost of the email, be intentional about considering the cost your email will impose on the other person.

As mentioned above, sometimes this will mean not sending the email. Many times it will mean sending a better email. I won’t go into that here since I posted on this earlier this week. So for an outline of what it means to send better emails, see “How to Write Better Emails.”

However, let me add here two things that I failed to mention in that article: The concepts of EOM and NRN.

The Concepts of EOM and NTN

First, if you can fit your whole message in your subject line, do it. Then, end the subject line with “EOM,” which means “end of message.” This indicates to your recipient that they don’t need to take the time to open the email. They’ve seen everything in the subject line. Delete and move on.

Second, start adding “NRN” at the end of your emails. “NRN” means “no reply needed.” This relieves the recipient of the burden of having to know if you expect a verification that they received your email.

For example, if you send someone a rough idea about this or that, it might be best to close with “NRN” so the person knows that you don’t expect them to take the time to build on or develop the idea. You’re just updating them on a direction of thought you are having, but there is no need to develop it yet.

Or if you send a report, there probably isn’t a need for the recipient to take the time to say “thanks, got it.” Save your recipient’s time by making crystal clear that they don’t need to do this. NRN.

3. Use Meetings Effectively

Last of all, another fundamental way to receive less emails (and send less emails!) is to use meetings effectively.

The connection between email volume and ineffective meetings does not seem to be realized very often. But one of the reasons our email volume is so high is because we are trying to take care of things by email that are better taken care of in person.

The irony is that when we are in meetings, we often feel that the meeting is “taking time away from our real work,” by which we (without knowing it) mean the time to send and receive all the emails we wouldn’t need to deal with if we were just using that meeting effectively.

Patrick Lencioni states this brilliantly in his excellent book Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business (pages 251-252):

Most executives I know spend hours sending e-mail, leaving voice mail, and roaming the halls to clarify issues that should have been made clear in a meeting in the first place. [Lencioni calls this "sneaker time."] But no one accounts for this the way they do when they add up time spent in meetings.

I have no doubt that sneaker time is the most subtle, dangerous, and underestimated black hole in corporate America. …

Remarkably, because sneaker time is mixed in with everything else during the day, we fail to see it as a single category of wasted time. It never ceases to amaze me when I see executives checking their watches at the end of a meeting and lobbying the CEO for it to end so they can ‘go do some real work.’

In so many cases, the ‘real work’ they’re referring to is going back to their offices to respond to e-mail and voice mail that they’ve received only because so many people are confused about what needs to be done.

So one of the reasons that we have so much email is because we fail to use meetings effectively. Ironically, we then want to get out of meetings so that we can do all the email that wouldn’t have been necessary if we had run the meeting correctly.

There is a lot to be said about meetings, and I will be doing a bunch of posts on meetings as this blog goes on. For now, realize that one of the fundamental ways of decreasing email volume is to run better meetings.

What Tips Do You Have?

I’ve suggested three ways to reduce email volume: Send less email, write better emails, and use meetings effectively.

What are some tips you have for reducing email volume? What do you do to send less email? How do you write better emails? What things do you do that I haven’t mentioned?

November 14, 2008 | Filed Under Email | 15 Comments 

Comments

  • http://acts29network.org Adriel

    It has helped me to sort my inbox by sender because often I will have multiple emails from one sender on a related topic. They forgot something, or got some new information to add, etc. I will answer all three emails in one.
    If I’m dealing with multiple topics from the same sender, it gets a little tricky. Some people prefer 1 subject per email to help with sorting and responding. Other people I work with would prefer 1 grand email with a list of everything I need responses on rather than having their inbox bombed.
    Any thoughts on which system is better? Or is it both depending on certain circumstances?

  • David

    It helps when I remind myself that sometimes picking up the phone will solve an issue quicker, rather than going back and forth with several one sentence emails. If there is any chance that something will be ambiguous (especially when your tone could be misread as rude depending on what you’re saying) I use the phone.

  • David

    It helps when I remind myself that sometimes picking up the phone will solve an issue more quickly, rather than going back and forth with several one sentence emails. If there is any chance that something will be ambiguous (especially when your tone could be misread as rude depending on what you’re saying) I use the phone.

  • Garrett Wishall

    Matt,

    I benefited from the article and just took my inbox down to zero from 60-70 in about 30 minutes.

    I realized as I was doing this that my desktop is a mess as far as organization. I have stuff all over the place, although, I can usually find it when I need it. More blogs in the future on organizing one’s files: should you have personal, ministry and work files, are these divisions unncecessary, etc. would be helpful.

  • Matt

    Adriel: Great question. I would say in general it is best to do one topic per email, but you should adjust some according to the circumstance.

    Here’s how I determine going the latter route:

    If I start having a bunch of ideas that need to be communicated on a project or topic for a person, then I group them into a single email, rather than sending them a bunch of messages. But this single email still needs to pertain to a larger over-riding theme (the specific project, or topic, or etc.).

    I find it painful when someone sends me 5 different emails adding detail to a subject that they originally emailed on. So if it seems like one subject per email is going to feel like that to the person, I group things into a single larger email.

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  • http://interactions.acm.org/ Richard Anderson

    Karen Renaud et al. provide some guidance along these lines in the Nov+Dec 2008 issue of interactions magazine (see http://interactions.acm.org/content/?p=1194).

  • Matt

    If any of you who commented on this post checked the “subscribe to be notified of future comments” box when you commented, I see that a spam comment was just posted which you might have therefore received.

    If you received that spam comment by email, I greatly apologize. I’m going to add a plug-in right now that will add a verification step to the commenting process to hopefully eliminate all future comment spam.

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  • http://billeater.com/ how-to-save-money

    That’s an interesting article. I just wondered if you could tell me where to find more info on this topic ?

  • Matt

    You can see my email category (http://www.whatsbestnext.com/category/productivity/email/). For more info specifically on how to get people to send you less email, the book The Hamster Revolution goes into a good amount of detail.

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