Got a job? One that involves a computer, an internet connection, and a desk?
I think we can all agree: Email overload is reaching a fever pitch. (And not a good fever, like disco or cowbell. A bad fever. Like typhoid.)
Like most people, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how to organize emails, prioritize emails, and respond to emails faster. But lately, I’ve been considering a more interesting question: How can I “train” people (gently and lovingly, of course) to send me fewer emails in the first place?
Here are three of my favorite techniques.
Are they revolutionary concepts? Not really. Are they sane, sensible reminders? I think so. And if you agree, I hope you email me and tell me all about it. (Just kidding. Completely.)
1. Don’t Answer Every Email Right Away (Or at All)
This may sound counterintuitive, but when you really dig into it, a lot of “urgent emails” tend to resolve themselves without your assistance.
Case in point: About once a day, I’ll get a frantic email from a lovely client, colleague, or customer who says something like:
“Alex! Help! I’m trying to do _________ but I can’t remember what you told me to do about _________. Can you remind me, again?”
About 90% of the time, if I wait an hour or two and do nothing at all, that same person writes back and says:
“Alex! Hooray! I figured it out. My bad. Never mind!”
By choosing not to respond instantaneously, you’re “training” people to be more self-reliant—while creating sane, realistic expectations about how quickly you’ll be able to reply.
Of course, use common sense here. If you work in a customer service position—and a key element of your job is to respond promptly to people who need your help—then obviously, your definition of “who needs my help” will be different than somebody else’s.
But no matter what kind of job you have, you can try this next step.
2. Create an Auto-Responder With Helpful Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Make a list of FAQS that people email to you, day in and day out. Then, plop your answers into an auto-responder that gives people precisely what they need.
It’s highly efficient, and again, it sends a subtle message that you appreciate people who are willing to help themselves.
Here’s a simple example:
Many thanks for writing.
If you’re reading these words, it means that I’m knee-deep in a big, exciting project—and I won’t be checking my email for several hours.
But thanks to the magic of email, I can still help you out, right now!
If you’re emailing to set up a meeting:
Please use my online scheduling tool, here. It’s the best way to lock down the time.
If you’re emailing to get a status update on Project XYZ:
Please check out the up-to-date timeline, over here.
If you’ve got an extremely time-sensitive question:
Please ring my cell at ###-###-####. Or stroll over to my desk on the third floor. I’ll be around.
3. Respond With Declarations, Not More Questions
If you conclude your emails with open-ended questions like these:
“What time do you think we should have lunch?”
“Do you remember how to update the website, or do you need help?”
“How do you think we should proceed from here?”
Your questions will only generate more emails, with even more questions, requiring your continued thought and attention.
So, instead of an open-ended question, try ending your emails with a clear declaration, like:
“Let’s have lunch at 12:30 PM. See you at Café Luna.”
“When you’re ready to update the website, here’s a WordPress tutorial and a link to our company branding guidelines. I’m here if you need more help.”
“Let’s reconnect in one week. I’ll call you at 10 AM next Monday.”
If what you’re proposing doesn’t work for your recipients, well, they’ll let you know! But most of the time, they’ll be grateful for your precision. You’re eliminating mental legwork for them—not to mention a long string of unnecessary back-and-forthing.
To Sum it All Up?
If you want to train people to send you fewer (and better) emails: Model the behavior that you want to see in the world.
If you make a habit of emailing friends and colleagues asking for advice on things you could probably just Google, then others will probably do the same to you.
If you write long, rambling, jigsaw-puzzle-esque emails, then you’ll get responses that are equally mystifying.
But, if you are thoughtful and concise, then you’ll raise the bar for everyone in your circle—teaching others precisely how you want to be treated.
So, be a clear and consistent teacher. Your inbox (and psyche) will thank you.