Be a Courteous Inbox Citizen

Be a Courteous Inbox Citizen

I'm anti-email.

I don't make a secret of this fact. I don't include my email address on my personal (non-business) cards and ask people to send me a message on twitter before emailing me. It feels like I always have too much email. I have more unanswered emails in my inbox than I'd like to admit. The more involved in projects and community initiatives I get, the less time I have for email, but the more email the new responsibilities create. 

Email has become a part-time job for most people - many employ part-time help to triage their email.

While you can do quite a lot to correct some of the organization issues and stop the automated emails that make their way to you,  there's a great deal more you can do to prevent the problems for you and the people you email.

Ask Permission

I really like the irc etiquette of asking someone before sending them a PM. It shows you respect their space and time (shout out to the physicists). Obviously this works best when you are moving from one medium - such as an in-person discussion or twitter conversation - to longer-format email.

Plus I'm more likely to keep an eye out for the email and reply sooner to return the respect you showed me.

Email Out of Necessity and Lay off cc/bcc

I often receive emails I don't need to be included on. A recent notable case was an email thread that was 39 emails long wherein my input was only required once

As many people write email free-form without a whole lot of pre-thought involved, I suggest waiting to fill in the to/cc/bcc fields until after writing the email. It really isn't until after you've written the email that you fully understand the scope so you can send the email to the people who actually need to receive the information.

Why Are You Emailing Me?

Pretend the email subject is a halved tweet. Tell me in 70chars or less what the email is about. This is great when I am triaging my emails (I like to group like-emails together so there is less context-switching) as well as when I am searching for the email later.

Use the first few lines inside the email to expand upon that. Since I often email people based on a twitter conversation, I like to include a link to the tweet or the tweet itself to add context. Tweetbot gives me the option to email a tweet and I've been using that quite often.

Similarly, if you are following up on a conversation, summarize why the conversation is relevant to the email.

Be Concise

Don't include small talk. Do you really want a paragraph on how I'm doing? Then you don't need to ask! :) Remember that brevity doesn't mean you're ditching politeness, just that you're leaving behind unnecessary bits that don't improve the quality of the discussion.

Include a numbered list of specific items you want addressed. This keeps me from having to double or triple-check that I've answered everything and means I don't have to copy/paste your questions into my reply. If you need to reply, use the same number scheme from the original email.

Ask for Specific Actions without Creating Obligation

One of the biggest complaints with email is that it becomes a to do list out of necessity. My inbox is currently filled with emails requiring me to do things.

While most emails are sent for this specific purpose, try to stay away from obligating the person on the other end. Quickly list what you want the outcome of the email to be and offer a way out of any obligation without guilt or fear of offense. State when you absolutely need a response by, being sure to give at least 48hrs.

I've recently created a few new email signatures that include the following:

Action needed: None; you do not need to reply to this email.

Action needed by [date]: Please do X

Action needed by [date]: Please follow-up this email with one of the following:

  • I am interested and would like participate (invite me to the discussion, I will come prepared)
  • I am interested, but don't want to participate. Notify me of the outcome.
  • I trust everyone else to make these decisions/I don't have time to participate.

Ask People to Respect Your Time

By instituting these guidelines in your emails with other people, you can help influence their email habits as well. Set boundaries with the most egregious offenders.

Hi John!

I appreciate that you want to keep me in the loop on X, but I've been struggling to keep up with my email and need to lessen the time and energy I spend on it.

It would really help me if you:

  • create descriptive subjects for your emails
  • only include me on emails where you need a response from me
  • let me know what action you expect me to take
  • send me fewer emails by lumping multiple questions or needs into one email

This will give me more time to spend on the emails that you require my assistance on, which I think will work well for both of us.

Please let me know if I can do anything to make your life easier as well! :)


How do you make your email more manageable?

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