Improve Your E-Mail Efficiency

March 3, 2011
in HR / Employee Relations


White Paper published by The HR Specialist, copyright 2011


Billions of e-mail messages are sent each day, but one study estimates that the average employee wastes more than 40 minutes a day on worthless e-mail. That doesn’t even include the jokes your friends and family forward and the unnecessary messages your colleagues copy to everyone in the office. Here’s how you can trim the time you spend on e-mail:

Start with the basics

(Our examples are based on Microsoft Outlook. Check for similar features of your program for managing e-mail.)

  • Turn off the automatic notification of new messages. (In Outlook, go to Tools, Options, Preferences, E-mail Options, Advanced E-mail Options.) Checking too frequently wastes time. Once or twice a day might be enough.
  • Treat e-mail as you should paper: Handle each item only once, and act, file or delete it.
  • Create folders-and subfolders if necessary-to organize messages.
  • Create separate accounts. Use one account, the one on your business card, for general purposes. Use the second account like an unlisted phone number that you give only to very important people. That’s the account you should check often. Finally, have one account that you use in public areas that might attract spam.
  • Tell senders to not e-mail jokes and other personal items to your work account. When appropriate, cite your organization’s policy, which is likely to ban sexually explicit and other types of e-mail.
  • Set a policy for whom should receive copies of e-mails, and enforce it. “Need to know” isn’t the same as “might be nice to know at some point in the future, but I’m not sure why right now.”
  • Follow your office’s document management policies for deleting, archiving and backing up files. Retaining too many messages makes it harder for you to manage them and takes up system resources. (Attorneys also know that they are a great place to look for damaging evidence in the event of a lawsuit.)
  • Fill in the “To:” line last. That eliminates the danger of accidentally sending a message before you are ready.
  • Use the “Cc” and “Reply to all” buttons sparingly. Those commands encourage you to send unnecessary copies. (And sooner or later in an exchange, the wrong person receives confidential information.) 

KISS (Keep it simple, sender)

  • Be concise. Make clear from the first sentence what you expect from the recipient. Keep paragraphs short, and limit messages to one screen of text. If you can handle the entire message in the subject line, do it. Show that is the full message by finishing with or for “end of message.”
  • In most cases, you can omit formalities you would use in a letter, such as a greeting.
  • Make subject lines meaningful. Instead of “FYI,” write “New expense report rules.”
  • If you received a message with an unclear subject line that you need to file, rewrite it or add to it.
  • To speed your composition, create message templates with basic text that you frequently write. Check whether your mail-merge program can be used to customize e-mails as well.
  • Delete extraneous information during an ongoing e-mail exchange. Don’t allow the previous messages to accumulate in a lengthy tail. 

Stop at the source

Don’t send messages that:

  • Unnecessarily close a loop or in which you simply chime in. Do you really need to reply with an “OK” or “Thanks” or “Me too!” If you truly want to be polite, say “thank you” the next time you actually talk to that person, which will be more meaningful than a few keystrokes.
  • Include lengthy attachments without asking the recipients first. Some e-mail systems won’t allow such attachments through, and for someone with a slow connection downloading a hefty file will tie up the system for a long time.
  • You are forwarding “FYI,” unless absolutely necessary. If someone sends you an alert about a virus, notify your IT department. Don’t take it upon yourself to notify everyone you know. It might be a hoax.
  • Are written in the heat of the moment. Dashing off a message when you are upset can cause damage that will take days to unravel. (One option: Delay delivery to give you time to cool down and possibly change your mind. While in the message, go to Options and “Do not deliver before:” to set the date and time.)

Write carefully to ensure your meaning won’t be misconstrued, and don’t handle conflict with e-mail if you can avoid it. If you’re agonizing over how to compose a message, take that as a signal that you need to communicate in another way. If you must handle a conflict by e-mail, limit yourself to one or two points per message. That will help you nip any further misunderstandings early. If the topic requires a dialog, head down the hall or pick up the phone instead of exchanging several e-mails.

Let the computer do the work

  • Create an automatic signature (or more than one) to end your messages. (Look under Tools, Options, Mail Format.) Basic information might include your name, organization, phone number and fax number. You also can use this feature to include short messages, such as: “On Oct. 1 we will move to new offices at … .”
  • Automatically capture new contacts. Right-click on an address in an e-mail, choose “Add to Contacts,” and it will create a new contact and fill in the information such as the name and e-mail address.
  • Create distribution lists for groups of people to whom you e-mail often. For example, all of the employees in your department could be in your Sales distribution list. To create one from your Inbox, go to File and New, then Distribution list.
  • Write a rule that sends e-mails on which you are only a “cc” recipient to a folder you check less frequently, and ask to be removed from distribution lists when possible.
  • If you can’t rid yourself of the fear that you’ll need an e-mail as soon as you delete it, create a holding file to briefly retain such messages. (The fact that you never do need to retrieve anything from there should encourage you to just delete those messages in the future.)

Put yourself on a spam diet

Avoid exposing your address in chat rooms, newsgroups, Web pages and message boards. (In one test, it took only eight minutes for an address used in a chat room to receive a piece of spam.) Create a separate account or mask your identity for public purposes.

Sometimes you can fool the programs that collect addresses but give your true information to humans by inserting something like “nospam” in the middle when writing your address. (Example:

If your company network doesn’t filter spam, take advantage of your Internet provider’s services for filtering and reporting spam. Don’t reply directly to the sender of spam. That just lets it know your e-mail address is valid.

Check the e-mail policies of the sites and organizations you use. Many sites give you the ability to sign up for automatic e-mails or opt out of those services. Read the fine print carefully to figure out what you must do to not receive unwanted messages.

Decode your e-mail

Frequent e-mail users have developed their own shorthand and symbols to save time and show some of the emotions that aren’t evident in writing. Because these are viewed as informal and some readers may not understand them, avoid using them in your work messages. Below, however, are few frequently used items to help you decipher messages you receive.

  • BTW = by the way
  • FWIW = for what it’s worth
  • HTH = hope this helps
  • IMO = in my opinion. Also, IMHO, in my humble opinion, and IMNSHO, in my not-so-humble opinion
  • LOL = laughing out loud
  • OTOH = on the other hand
  • ROTFL = rolling on the floor laughing
  • TIA = thanks in advance
  • πŸ™‚ or πŸ™‚ = smile
  • πŸ™ or πŸ™ = frown
  • πŸ˜‰ or ‘-) = wink
  • :-! = foot in mouth
  • :-@ = screaming

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