Email is the technology tool everyone relies on and yet perhaps also hates (it’s the cockroach of the internet!). Love it or hate it, we could probably all stand to improve our email skills, from managing our inboxes to sending more elegant email messages. Here are ten of the top mistakes we make with our email.
10. Emailing the Wrong People or Too Many People
It’s horrifyingly easy to email the wrong person, as everyone who has received an email intended for someone else or made that mistake themselves should know. Always double-check your email program’s auto-completion of the recipient address and, perhaps most importantly, try not to send emails that could embarrass you if it got into the wrong hands. (See this PC Magazine roundup of email misfires for further reinforcement.) On a similar note, make sure each person on your To: or Cc: fields really needs that message (To: is for the person who needs to respond, Cc: is for people who just need a copy of the message). Emailing people who don’t need to see that message is like forcing someone to come to a meeting they don’t need to attend. Also be careful when replying versus replying to all—one of the biggest causes of email fails.
9. Checking Your Inbox Too Often
Everyone’s trying to fix email because it’s a productivity killer. We’re all checking it too often—on evenings, weekends, and holidays and all through the day. The key to better work is to check email less, so here’s how to stop checking email on your free time, why you shouldn’t check email first thing in the morning, and how to make more room for more important work by setting your email program to check every hour instead of continuously.
8. Not Clearing Out Your Inbox Often Enough
The irony is that we’re checking our email constantly, but our inboxes keep filling up anyway because we don’t take action when we check our emails. (It’s like taking in the physical mail from your mailbox, opening all the letters, and then dumping them in a pile by the front door. If you’ve been to my house, you know what I mean.) Somewhere between the stress of chasing inbox zero and the stress of letting our inboxes go to hell, there’s a solution: Check your inbox regularly (but not all the time) and when you do, actually process those messages. Here’s how to deal with the seven basics types of email, the three folders or labels that can help clear your inbox, and how to organize Gmail with a basic, limited set of labels. We’ve also featured apps such as Mailstrom and Google’s own Inbox app that make your inbox more manageable and help filter emails out of your inbox and into the labels they belong in.
7. Using Your Inbox as a Task Manager and Notes App
The emails that tend to stick around in our inbox are either reference items (e.g., a newsletter with information you actually want to read) or action ones (e.g., a Target coupon you’re thinking of using or questions about a project from your boss you need to answer…eventually). That might make Gmail or your other email app seem like an ideal to-do list manager or place to email yourself notes and to-do reminders, but email is not a task manager. New emails will constantly be flowing in, burying your important to-dos and notes in that mass of messages. Also, dedicated task managers and notes apps have many more useful features for these purposes, such as dragging-and-dropping to prioritize to-dos like Wunderlist does and all the things you can do with Evernote, like adding handwritten notes and grouping multiple notes into one. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, a good system or workflow can apply Getting Things Done principles to Gmail and Google’s Inbox does a pretty good job of including task-related features. Generally, though, you’re better off using one to-do list—probably not your email.
6. Burying New Emails in Old Email Threads
A.k.a., Don’t Hijack a Closed Thread to Start a New Conversation Because You Are Too Damn Lazy to Create a New Message and Add the Proper Contacts. Email threads have a way of spiraling out of control all on their own—even when everyone sticks to the email subject. (You know those subject lines that start with “Re: Re: Re: Re:” Ugh.) It’s even worse when an email thread just won’t die because we keep them alive, using an old email thread to send a message on a completely different subject. I have to admit this is a pet peeve of mine and I’ve seen the savviest of tech savvy people do it. Using an old email thread for a different subject makes it much harder for the recipients to organize and make sense of their emails (e.g., the subject line is about dinner plans from four months ago but now everyone’s being Cc:ed on the same thread about a surprise party for next month). Please don’t do this. Start a new email for every distinct subject.
5. Writing Terrible Subject Lines
The reason reusing old email threads is awful is that email subject lines are critical pieces of information. They help us know whether we should read an email right away or if they can wait. I get way too many emails with subject lines that are completely blank, the same subject line for every email from the same sender (e.g., “Hi”), and subject lines that are sometimes rude enough I will never open them (e.g., “THIRD ATTEMPT: News I Keep Telling You Your Readers Want to Read”). I know I could do better at writing more actionable and informative subject lines and writing subject-only emails with acronyms like EOM. The subject line’s pretty important, so it helps if you know how to make a killer subject line.
4. Not Saving or Backing Up Your Important Emails
We tend to think of our email inboxes as a kind of unlimited storage area for all our emails, sent and received. But just like you shouldn’t trust a cloud storage provider like Dropbox to store your only copy of an important file, your important email messages (and other files) shouldn’t reside in just one place. What if the Exchange Server mysteriously deletes your emails? Or Gmail goes down just when you need to access a particular email? (I’ve seen both happen.) Email backups are your friend. Here’s how you can save your emails as a backup to your hard drive or a third-party backup service (e.g., for Gmail) and how to automatically back up and purge Gmail every month. Outlook and other desktop email clients make it easy to archive or save messages to your hard drive, but you could also use IFTTT to send messages and attachments to cloud services so important emails are saved in more than one place.
3. Ignoring Basic Email Etiquette Rules
As with other means of communication, there are considerate and less considerate ways to email. If there’s only one email etiquette guideline you want to read today, read the Email Charter. It includes many tips like limiting your email messages to a few sentences (be concise, organized, and relevant). Some tips for keeping your emails short and sweet: Preview your emails on your phone before sending, limit yourself to 300 words, and try not to piss off the world with your email signature. And finally, don’t drink and email.
2. Sending Sensitive Information Over Email
Email might seem like it’s private, but it’s really not. Encrypt your documents (such as sensitive tax-related files) if you have to transfer them digitally or look into other ways to share sensitive information, such as passwords. Remember, anything that can be seen can be copied, so when in doubt, keep this stuff in the meat world and not the digital one (like your email inbox or outbox).
1. Not Responding to Emails Promptly
Ever read an email and then star it or just think to yourself you’ll respond later (and never get around to it)? I’ll fess up to that too. Responding promptly to email might be the most important email habit you can develop, though, at least according to Google exec Eric Schmidt. Use the 2-2-2 rule to force yourself to respond to all types of messages in a timely manner (respond to emails within 2 hours). Well, for many of us, responding within half a day would be good! If you dropped the ball on an email response, don’t worry, you can recover. But going forward, consider setting up better email filters so only the most important emails get your attention—and get your email under control, rather than letting it control you.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
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