I spend a tremendous amount of time every day reading and writing emails. Depending on your job, the volume of email you receive can become overwhelming if you don’t intentionally manage it. In my post, Battling the Culture of Busy: Part 1 – Email Management and Organization, I share some general tactics that you can use to keep your email under control. The following are some additional tactics that focus specifically on email response rhythms.
My company is a big fan of meeting and agenda rhythms as well. Email response rhythms are similar in that they are tactics to create consistency and intention in how and when you respond to email. They create habits that remove certain levels of decision-making and prevent the confusion that can come from sloppy email etiquette.
The following are the 8 email response rhythms that I use to help keep my email as streamlined as possible:
1. Write searchable email subject lines
Regardless of how many emails you receive, it is valuable to be able to easily search correspondences at any given time. Email is often a history and record of events and should be treated as such. An important and easy way to make your emails easy to find is by writing searchable email subject lines. Subject lines like “Update”, “Board Meeting”, “Discussion Follow-up” are all pretty useless. The subject lines will vary depending on the type of email you are sending, but consider including:
- Your business name
- Your recipients business name
- A phrase that summarizes the email contents
- Details that would that include searchable attributes like a PO, invoice number, or project name
- Code and Effect/XYZ Board Meeting Follow-up regarding Golf Tournament
- Code and Effect Quote for ABC Job Board Software
- Meeting minutes from Aug 10, 2017, ACME meeting
- Invoice #4567 from Code and Effect for JKL Project – Part 1 of 3
Consider the things that either you, your customer or colleagues might look for in the context of the email. If you combine this with email tagging, you will have a great system for easily finding past emails.
2. Start a new email thread if the subject has changed
The email contents need to match the email subject so that they can be easily found again. A simple rule of thumb is that if a discussion is happening in an email thread and the subject of the discussion changes, start a new thread. It’s easy. You say, “Let’s start a new email thread to discuss this new topic” and send a new email (with a searchable subject line!). If you don’t, you will likely end up having to waste time combing through 30 email conversation threads when you go back to look something up.
3. Use “Reply All” with caution
While it can be valuable to keep everyone in the loop during an email discussion, you should question if everyone in a thread needs to be informed of your response. Often the only person that needs your response is the person who sent the original email. Ask yourself if you think there is value in everyone getting your response, or if it is going to clutter up 6 other people’s inboxes.
4. Confirm receipt of informational emails
This is a simple courtesy. It takes very little effort to send a thank you email to someone and confirm that you have received the information they put together. It is pretty rare that emails get lost these days, but by confirming that you have it, as well as any actions that you might need to take, you keep communication flowing and reduce the need for further emails.
- “Noted, thanks.”
- “Thanks for sending this, Kate. I will review and get back to you with any questions by next Wednesday.”
5. Confirm meeting dates, times and locations
Have you ever arrived at a coffee meeting and had a moment of uncertainty about whether you got the date/time/location correct? When you have established a meeting time and location via several emails, a way to make sure there is no confusion about the date, time or location is by responding with a final email that summarizes the specific details. Make sure you include additional information about a meeting spot that has multiple locations. I have had several coffee meetings go awry because each participant was a different cafe location. This is a simple tactic to reduce meeting stress and prevent that moment of uncertainty.
“Thanks, Karen. I look forward to meeting you at 3 pm on Thursday, September 7 at the Remedy cafe on 109th street”.
6. Create a paper trail by summarizing important meetings or phone calls via email
I don’t love talking on the phone, but it is often a great way to save time instead of emailing back and forth. I also don’t always feel like it is appropriate to take notes during a meeting. In both of these cases, depending on the context, it can be prudent and valuable to send a quick summary email of the conversation to the other participants. I can barely remember what happened last weekend, never mind the specifics of a phone call I had three weeks ago.
By sending a summary email after a meeting or phone call, you are preventing confusion and ensuring there is a paper trail in case the discussion details need to be revisited.
7. Send a follow-up email after 7 days
I have a rule that I will wait 7 calendar days to follow-up on most emails if I haven’t heard back yet. This gives the person plenty of time if they are dealing with other priorities, keeps it out of my brain for a set time, and makes sure I am not harassing the other person.
Sometimes a matter is urgent and the 7-day rule doesn’t work. You might need to follow-up sooner and or/escalate to a phone call. That said, usually, the 7-day rule lets you put aside the conversation and have it not be on your list as something you have to deal with until that seventh day.
8. Close the loop
Sometimes you can’t get a response from someone and end up wondering how many emails you should send before you give up or roll into harassment territory. A rule of thumb that we were taught through our mentorship groups was to send up to three follow-up emails and on the third email inform the person it will be your last follow-up.
“Hi Beth. You are obviously very busy so this will be my final follow-up email. If you want to discuss your project again in the future when you have more time, please feel free to reach out. I would be happy to schedule a time to chat!”
This often actually results in an immediate response from the person you were trying to reach. If it doesn’t, you no longer need to take up any brain space on someone who isn’t replying to your emails. Closing the loop is an effective way to set a rhythm on how many times you are willing to attempt to contact someone, as well as likely spur a response.
These are all fairly easy tactics that you can use to create effective email response rhythms. They help manage mental clutter and prevent the confusion that can come from sloppy email etiquette. What email response techniques do you use to help you manage your email efficiently?