Brevity is the soul of email

Sometimes you can communicate more by typing less -- or less often. These tips will help you recoup work time you've been losing to the email monster.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

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You don't have time to sort through the hundreds of expert opinions on how to rein in a runaway inbox. That's why I did the sorting for you.

As I worked my way through about a dozen of these strategies for boosting email productivity, a theme arose: Keep it brief.

In that spirit and without further delay, here are the top suggestions of productivity gurus for avoiding email time sinks.

Don't let your inbox set your schedule

I'm one of those people who visits his inbox before I have my coffee or open a newspaper in the morning (remember newspapers?). That's why the first tip offered by Audrey Thomas of OrganizedAudrey.com, threw me for a loop, Wait an hour into your workday before you check your email.

Since many of us communicate with people far outside our time zone, this suggestion will be difficult to follow. However, the last of Audrey's 10 tips is one I heartily endorse (with one qualification): Turn off all email notifications. After all, who's the boss, you or your inbox?

The qualification is that you may want to set up alerts for mail you receive from people who might actually send you an urgent message. In that case, you can either create a rule that alerts you via text message when you receive mail from that person (I'll explain this process in a future post), or use a service such as AwayFind.

I described how to use AwayFind in a post from November 2012 entitled "How to silence notifications on smartphones and tablets" (scroll to the bottom of the post for information about the app). AwayFind costs $5 a month for one email account and $15 a month for up to five accounts; both the Personal and Pro accounts come with free 30-day trials.

Five-sentence rule saves your time and theirs

Just as there are people who love the sound of their own voice, many of us believe the recipients of our messages find our email prose riveting. Not so. Entrepreneur's Stephanie Vozza calls the five-sentence email rule a "productivity lifesaver."

Vozza recommends putting a postscript at the bottom of your messages that reads "To save your time and mine, I'm limiting all my responses to five sentences or fewer." In fact, the five-sentence rule doesn't apply only to responses. Vozza quotes serial entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki: "Less than five sentences is often abrupt and rude, more than five sentences wastes time."

Kawasaki believes emails should answer five questions: who you are, what you want, why you're asking, why the recipient should do what you're asking, and what the next step is. The only exception to the five-sentence rule is when you're praising someone. Then Kawasaki suggests that you "go on as long as you like."

TLAs can be RTSs (real time savers)

One of the best ways to get your message across in less time is to encapsulate it in the subject line with TLAs (three-letter acronyms). Inc.'s Les McKeown "dissects" the email subject line in "Key to email productivity? Better subject lines."

When a two- or three-word reply will suffice, or simply to acknowledge receipt of a message, you can answer without the original message and start the subject line with "Got it; will do (eom)" to indicate the recipient needn't open the message. In addition to "eom" (end of message), McKeown suggests several other subject-line TLAs: NRR (no reply required), Y/N (yes/no question), RB[T] (reply by a set time/date), AB[T] (action by a set time/date), and PYR (per your request), which to me seems too obvious, and perhaps even a little snarky.

To file or not to file?

Many email-productivity experts insist that you make sure your inbox is empty at the end of each workday. I take the opposite approach: my inbox is my searchable message archive. However, I readily acknowledge the benefits of an organized mail-storage system.

The key to such a system is to create folders into which you place messages based on various criteria. Medium.com's George Kao has devised a seven-category email system that he claims accommodates all the messages you're likely to receive.

From a productivity standpoint, the most important of Kao's seven categories is the first: No need to reply or read, which to me equals "delete." The other categories are file away, optional response, optional reading, required response today, required response later, and follow up. Kao points out that some of these categories will require subcategories.

If seven categories of mail are too many for you, Forbes' Susan Adams recommends the "three-flavored" mail-management approach of productivity expert Mark Hurst: irrelevant, relevant but not actionable, and actionable.

In the first category are spam and "reply-all" messages, which Hurst says you should delete immediately. Mail in the second category should be archived, according to Hurst. This leaves only the messages that Hurst refers to as "work," which he recommends you move into a "to-do" folder.

Years ago, an experienced office manager told me that the key to paper file management was to handle each file as few times as necessary, and preferably only once. Moving your mail out of your inbox and into a folder that you'll access later adds one step to your mail management. But if an empty inbox is your goal, Hurst's system is about as simple and straightforward as they get.

Another Forbes article published this week and written by Cathie Ericson offers 5 Ways to Take Control of Your Email Inbox. Ericson quotes Marsha Egan of InboxDetox.com as recommending that you check your email only three times each day: first thing in the morning, after lunch, and near the end of your workday. If necessary, Egan says, you can add mid-morning and mid-afternoon email checks.

Egan also recommends that you avoid opening your mail app when you're "on the run" because you want to wait until you'll have the time to respond deliberately. In addition, she warns against perusing your inbox just before bedtime because looking into a bright monitor can keep you from falling asleep quickly.

Think before you reply, or don't reply at all

Several of the email experts warn against replying to messages right away if you don't need to. As Medium.com's George Kao points out, "distance creates perspective."

Also consider that for some messages, email may not be the most effective medium. When you find yourself bumping up against the five-sentence rule, it might be time to pick up the phone or, if the person is nearby, stop by in person to deliver your message. Conversely, a text message may be best for short notes that need to be read or responded to right away.

While it doesn't relate directly to productivity, another tip repeated by email mavens is to keep the tone of your message "positive and friendly." As with all electronic communications, irony and other attempts at humor often fall flat without the appropriate voice inflection or in-person gestures and expressions. That's another reason to think about picking up the phone or stopping by to deliver your message in the flesh.