How to protect yourself and others from email madness
What makes email so bad?
When the email was invented, nobody had it that several decades later, it could be one of the most essential and versatile means of communication for everyone. Who could have guessed in the 1960s or 1970s that companies would one day have internal discussions and send sales newsletters or that automated advertising waste could be an issue?
The email was a simple way for the few users of the Internet and its predecessors to send messages. Accordingly, the foundation of the email is not prepared for the burden it has to bear today.
The primary email protocols are amazingly simple. Sender, recipient, title, text of the message – that was mostly it. Nicely designed emails with fonts and graphics? Threads? Profiles? Protection against spam? Encryption? None of this is part of the necessary equipment.
These and many other functions were and are screwed on, flanged on, glued on. Sometimes it works quite well. Sometimes it collapses. And sometimes it moves in a frustrating middle area, where it sometimes works and sometimes fails, and you don’t know why.
The email also has its good points
An email has an excellent quality that we take for granted: it is based on open standards. And that means: Regardless of which email provider you have your address with, you can receive emails from any other user and send them to any other user. Alternatives like the messengers so popular today cannot do this – often even on purpose. Even between Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, you can’t send messages back and forth so far, also though they all belong to the same company. Facebook wants to change that now. But that too will be a closed ecosystem.
Unfortunately, there was never a consortium that could have taken the email to the next level. Google would have been a candidate to suggest something like this because the company was happy to carry the banner of open-source advertising in front of it. But that has been forgotten for years. Instead, they employ their engineers to develop private functions for Gmail.
Messenger might also have been able to use an improved version of the email protocols. But that didn’t happen, and that’s why we now have several incompatible apps on our smartphones.
It’s all a shame, but a reality that we have to accept (at least for now). At the same time, an email will not disappear so quickly, precisely because it is so universally applicable. Younger generations may prefer the more versatile and colorful messengers. But at the latest in companies, authorities and other organizations, email is still everyday life.
This post is now about how to tame the email demon. There will be two main topics:
- Like you and your colleagues, make sure that email does not become an internal stress factor.
- What alternatives and additions to email are there that make your life easier.
1. Tips and tricks for less email stress in the team
I have been using email personally for over 20 years and now more than ever. I also had countless discussions about it, discussed dates and topics and much more.
Below I would like to share some useful tips on how teams can better use this tool.
They can be divided into two groups:
- The best email is an email that is never even sent. That’s why several tips are about avoiding emails.
- If you have to send an email, make it as bright, understandable and unambiguous as possible.
Use the subject line correctly
The subject works like a newspaper headline or the title of a blog post. It should make it clear at first glance what it is about.
Keep it short, but not too short. Many email programs only display the first few words. The most important information must, therefore, be at the beginning. Instead, write in telegram style, but remain meaningful: “Question” is a short subject, for example, but not a good one. Also, think of the “3 Ws” (see below).
Show importance. Use the beginning of the subject for signal words like “Info:” or “Important:” or “Urgent:”. In this way, the recipient can quickly assess whether the email needs immediate attention or not. Agree on a system with your colleagues.
Use the subject as a message. Sometimes the issue is enough. Mark this with a note such as “n / t” (no text) to avoid misunderstandings. Possibly the better choice in the long run: internal messenger and chat services such as Slack or Microsoft Teams (see below).
The “Five Sentences” project aims to treat emails in a similar way to SMS in the past and to give them a maximum length. Instead of the characters, the sentences are counted here. So that you don’t look rude, you can refer to http://five.sentenc.es in your signature.
One topic per email. If possible, do not overload emails with questions. Better decide what is really important and urgent. This provides a better overview, makes answering easier and keeps discussions via email clear for longer.
Set goals. Be clear beforehand about what you are sending this email for: What do you want to achieve? What should come out in the end? And that is precisely what you put at the centre of the message.
Improve long emails
It is not always possible to be satisfied with a few sentences in an email. But there are also some useful tips:
Get started immediately. Make it clear at the beginning what it is about, ideally in the first sentence. What is the goal? What are the “3 Ws” (see below)?
Split emails. Put a short version with an overview of the subject of the email right at the beginning, the rest with all the details will come afterwards. Advantage: Hurry readers can immediately get an impression and then learn more in the next step if necessary.
Structure texts. Use paragraphs, highlighting (boldings), lists or colours to structure long emails. Note: white space makes it easier to capture text. This makes it easier to skim/scan an email and at the same time, makes it easier to reply.
Check before sending
Reread everything. This also includes the subject, the greeting, quotes from previous emails. Pay attention not only to spelling and grammar but also to the content such as names and dates. In this way, you avoid misunderstandings, questions or even a time-consuming correction of incorrect information.
Quote and answer correctly
Copy the question (s) out of the original text and then respond on the next line. This keeps the email clear. It also becomes clear which question you answer and whether you have seen all the questions.
Pay attention to the design. Every question and every answer has its line. You can emphasize this with colours or buildings, provided that the mail program does not automatically do this for you.
The 3 Ws: Who, What, When
Formulate your tasks clearly with the 3 Ws:
1. Who should do something? Who is responsible? Who is only informed?
2. What exactly should be done? What are the requirements? What is the goal?
3. When must it be done? Be as precise as possible, even if there is no exact date.
Use if-then phrases to intercept queries in advance. In other words, you specify several variants from the start. Example: You want to meet the team in a restaurant on Friday evening. They say that you meet in front of the office building at 6 p.m. If someone can only come later, they should instead come directly to the restaurant and ask about the table reservation.
Options instead of open questions
Instead of asking an open question, you prefer to give options that recipients can choose from. Otherwise, you provoke a lengthy, complicated discussion via email. To take up the restaurant example again: You don’t ask where the colleagues would like to go. They give three different restaurants to choose from.
Always read the entire thread
Before you reply to a discussion, read the whole thread. When emailing multiple people, see if there have been any other answers. You can sort your inbox by subject. Some email programs also try to sort emails by topic, but this does not always work out correctly.
Correct handling of time-critical emails
If you receive a time-critical email, send a short confirmation back. In this way, the sender does not have to be surprised whether the email has arrived and is being processed. Ideally, in the answer, briefly repeat the task and the appointment to make it clear: I have understood what it is about.
Send a time-critical email yourself, indicate this in the subject or at the beginning.
Use “All Answers” correctly
Always consider whether your answer needs to be seen by everyone. Often it may be enough just to send the response to the sender. If you request feedback, you can also explicitly point out that only you will be written back. They then summarize the results and send an email to everyone again.
Remove targeted recipients when replying. Employees from other departments or customers may be excluded if their input is not needed at the moment. Make it clear in the subject or at the beginning of the email that you have removed recipients to avoid confusion.
Drafts as templates for recurring emails
You can save frequently recurring emails as a draft. Copy out the basic structure and then insert the new data and information. Benefit for recipients: Recurring formats make it easier to find critical information in an email.
External programs such as a text editor are also suitable for this. Such templates can also be saved as signatures.
Provide clear information about your absence.
- Will you read your emails sporadically or not at all?
- Are your emails forwarded?
- Can you be reached by other means in an emergency?
- Who is the alternative contact person, and how exactly can I contact this person?
Share and try these tips with the team
Together with your colleagues, make it clear which tips you would like to use from this article. Explain precisely what you want to do and why.
It is best to write down the new rules in writing.
After four to six weeks, evaluate with your colleagues what worked and what didn’t.
2. Other tools and services
It is also beneficial if you keep the limits of emails in mind and prefer to use different tools and services for some tasks. Here are some examples and suggestions:
As shown above, you can also use the subject of an email as a quick message. But this is only practicable in exceptional cases and certainly not a permanent solution. Messenger and chats are better choices for such tasks. Slack and Microsoft Teams are well-known examples here.
The unique feature here: they are intended as communication centres. Here, communication is not only between individuals but also in any group. And external tools can automatically post in their chat rooms, which often reduces the communication effort.
Slack & Co., however, have their problems. And here, too, many of the tips that I have already given above regarding email apply. So you should consider carefully whether your chat message is essential, whether it is the best way of communication and who needs to see it. When you post something, keep it clear and unambiguous.
Unfortunately, Slack, Microsoft Teams and others are not well suited for discussions among many participants. It is now possible to reply directly to posts. This, at least, makes the connection explicit. But ultimately that only helps to a limited extent.
Here, however, the question arises as to whether written, and possibly delayed communication is the best tool. It may make more sense to meet in person – of course, with a clear agenda and objectives as well as an active moderator who records the results in the end. If this is not so easy in remote teams, for example, tools such as Skype or Zoom are ideal for a video conference.
And, yes, sometimes it can be the best idea to call someone directly or knock on the office door. However, the principle of restraint also applies here: it should not be the first impulse to disturb someone in his workflow, train of thought and schedule unless it is urgently necessary.
Here at SwaCash we naturally want to keep each other up to date on the current state of affairs for upcoming issues and contributions. Instead of manually writing such updates to a chat (or even an email), we use Trello and have linked it to Slack. With Trello, we have a quick overview of what is at which point in the implementation process. A bot writes every change at Slack in a defined chat room. In other words, if you just want to see what’s going on, you’ll find it in Slack. If you’re going to look more closely, look in Trello. And with all of this, no messages are written to anyone. It happens on its own.
Of course, you can determine which activities in Trello trigger a message on Slack. And you should also do this to avoid flooding the canal.
A typical example of a moment when the email system is not working well: Appointment in a larger group. Anyone who has tried this knows how quickly this can end in a hopeless mess.
Fortunately, there are tools like Doodle for that. Here you can specify dates for selection and mark all those affected who fit them. In the end, you will see the result without having to go through dozens of emails.
Another point that makes emails exhausting is attachments. Who hasn’t desperately searched for the one message with the one attachment? And even if large amounts of data no longer seem to play a significant role today, one should not assume that everyone wants and can receive hundreds of megabytes and more.
It is better to find another storage location. Well-known examples here are WeTransfer if large amounts of data are to be passed on. Or providers like Dropbox to work with others on folders and files in the cloud.
However, companies must also observe data protection here, which is why not every privately used external service comes into question. If such a service is used frequently, it can be set up in the form of an in-house cloud.
Email can still work well if you are aware of the limitations of this medium. Limit yourself to the essentials and always consider whether an email is the best tool for the task at hand. Discuss this together in a team, because here everyone has to pull together. If everyone adheres to clear rules and shows consideration for one another, the email demon can be tamed.