Email has been with us for well over 40 years, and in common professional use for more than 20 — but you’d never know it, if you went by how often most of us screw up while using it.
Part of the problem is email’s ubiquity. If you work in an office, you probably have access to email most of your waking hours. Depending on the corporate culture of your employer, there might even be an expectation that you’ll keep checking email long after work is over for the day.
The more we use a technology, the more comfortable we get with it … and the easier it is to make mistakes while our attention is elsewhere. The good news is that you don’t have to keep making the same email mistakes over and over again.
For example, here’s how to stop making these:
- The Reply-All Apocalypse
There are really two kinds of Reply-All Apocalypse.
The first happens when you send out an email to your team and every single person replies to the list. You can lose your whole day this way, and never make any progress.
To lessen the chances of this happening, specify that you’d like everyone to reply to you separately, so that you can coordinate responses. Will everyone comply? Absolutely not. Will some people read it and think, “Oh, that’s right: these threads get annoying very quickly, and I should refrain from contributing to the problem”? Most likely, yes, and then you’ll get back some of your time.
The second kind of Reply-All Apocalypse is potentially more deadly to your career, but even easier to avoid, because it’s entirely within your control. This is the one that arises because you replied-all when you meant to respond to only one person, typically the sender.
The way you prevent this problem is by opening another email, and replying separately. Sure, you might cost the sender a few seconds in sorting time … but you’ll avoid saying something you shouldn’t.
It’s also important to note that it’s a mistake to ever send anything via email that you wouldn’t print on a t-shirt and wear to the company picnic. If you’re embarrassed to have someone see what you want to write, rethink it.
- The Flowery Missive
Emails occupy a strange space in professional communications. They’re not letters, but they’re not quick-hit messages, like you’d find on Slack or text. It’s no wonder that people sometimes get confused about what emails should look like.
Keep in mind that the goal is to communicate quickly. You should be civil, sure, but you should also get to the point as soon as possible, and keep the message brief. The recipient will thank you.
Skip: long blocks of text, unrelated thoughts, and redundancies. Include and place right up front: the question you need answered, the point of your email, or what you need from the recipient.
- See Attachment (There’s No Attachment)
Most email programs will warn you if you use a word like “attached” and there’s no attachment, but if you’re in a hurry, even that won’t stop your flying fingers from clicking “send” and moving on. To keep this from happening, add the attachment to your email before you write the body of the message. You’ll also probably be less likely to attach the wrong document.
- Allow Me to Answer Your Question With a Passive-Aggressive cc:
It’s important to keep your manager and teammates in the loop, but there’s a difference between including someone in the conversation, and throwing your colleague under the bus. If you don’t have an answer to a question, say so. Do not use a productivity tool to slow down productivity. You’ll lose your coworkers’ esteem and you won’t get anything done.
- The Email-Alert-as-Electronic-Leash
If you’re still checking your email every time an alert goes off — or every few minutes — it’s time to rethink your approach. Most productivity experts advise checking email only a few times a day. Do so more often, and you run the risk of allowing other people to dictate your schedule and priorities, instead of considering many messages at once and determining which are most important for your goals.
Of course, to pull this off, you’ll need your boss’s buy-in, but if she understands that your goal is to get more done — and if you provide another means of getting in touch — she’ll most likely be on board.
Tell Us What You Think
What email mistake would you add to this list? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation at Twitter.