E-Mail’s Five Golden Rules

By Marilynne Rudick on August 11, 2010

In Ten Tools for Pruning Your Inbox, I offered tips for organizing and responding to the e-mails that clog your inbox. But managing the e-mail once it is in your inbox is just one part of the equation: the other part is reducing the quantity of the e-mail you receive and improving the quality. To do that, I’m proposing these five golden rules of e-mail. If everyone followed them, we’d significantly reduce the average 7.2 hours a week—almost a full work day—we now devote to e-mail.

1. Write helpful subject lines. A good subject line tells you what the e-mail is about. It lets you triage your messages. Do you need to respond to the e-mail immediately? Can it  wait until you have more time? Here’s an unhelpful subject line: Yesterday’s phone call. It might take a while to conjure up the phone call this refers to. What about yesterday’s phone call?  Following up on Social Networking conference call is a more helpful subject line. It reminds you what the call was about and tells you that you’ll probably need to take action.

2. Change the subject line if the topic of the e-mail changes. Sometimes the e-mail has a great subject line, but it has nothing to do with the topic of the e-mail. This happens frequently when the sender takes an old e-mail and clicks “reply” without rewriting the subject line to reflect the current topic. For example, an e-mail I received with the subject line June schedule was sent in August and was about an upcoming conference in October.

3. Send e-mail only to “need-t0-knows.” Think twice before you add a name to the address field. Does this person need to act on the e-mail? Opening irrelevant e-mail takes time and can be confusing. (Why did I receive this? Am I supposed to do something?)

4. Use “reply all” cautiously. Don’t be lazy and just click “reply all” because it is easier than figuring out who should receive the reply. If you don’t know the other recipients, it’s a good practice to reply only to the sender, not the entire group.

5. Forward jokes judiciously. It is nearly impossible to keep from forwarding LOL jokes. But make sure that the people you send them to will actually find them funny. Will the recipient think the priest, rabbi, minister joke is amusing or offensive? Do you want to send the latest blonde joke to everyone you know, or just to blondes? Be extra cautious if you are sending the joke to someone’s work inbox. Remember, work e-mail is not private. And finally, put joke in the subject to let recipients know that they don’t need to open the e-mail immediately.

Categories: E-Mail & Messaging

1 comment

  • Great suggestions! I only recently learned that I could change the subject of a message I’m replying to — especially if it’s about a new subject. I also loved the post on “pruning your inbox.” I followed your advice and I’m having a much easier time now dealing with my inbox.

    Posted by: Peggy on August 12, 2010 at 11:06 am

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