A sure way to chomp up time is to wade into your email list. After pruning out the pharmaceutical ads, promises of money and rewards for laundering funds, it comes down to mail. Before you answer anything, try this–check to see how many are replies to your replies. You get an email, you reply, and you get another email. You open it, and some odd chemistry happens. You must reply. You must have the last word. You must control the email. You send off your clever note, and sure enough, you get another reply. You read it and your fingers uncontrollably click out an answer. It is the ping-pong effect of emails. It never ends. It eats up your time and your brain.
1. Read the email slowly, and see what needs to be answered. What is the question here? What response is needed–a date, a fact, agreement to a meeting?
2. Once you hit ‘reply’, immediately create a list of keywords for your answers. For example if the email asked if you wanted to attend the meeting to decide on the new product’s marketing plan, you would type ‘meeting’ and ‘marketing plan.’
3. Use the keywords to create sentences that answer questions. Try for one sentence per question, with as little opinion as possible. For example, using the keyword ‘meeting,’ you might write, “Yes, send me a meeting invitation, what should I bring?” That is a lot shorter than “I can come to the meeting if it is Monday between 2 and 3, but not after 4, and on Wednesday I have to leave early to take Haley to soccer. . .” Asking for a meeting invitation indicates you want to come without committing to a time; asking what you need to bring indicates that you want to come prepared, and for more information.
4. Read through the email again, did you answer all the questions? Check your reply to make sure you are brief and clear. Then hit “send.”
5. The next email should be an invitation, which you can accept or deny. If the reply to “what should I bring?” is “coffee” or “nothing,” you will have to ask, “can you send me an agenda by [date or time]?” Nothing else is necessary.
6. If the reply is “there isn’t an agenda, and there may not be one at all,” you have all the information you need from that person. You may not have enough information to go to the meeting, but your next step is to pick up the phone to the person who is running the meeting. Another email is just ping-pong.
7. Avoid adding opinions, shifting to an unrelated topic, or asking too many questions at once. People will read through an email and answer your last question. It’s not productive to ask five questions in an email. You’ll get the answer to the last one, or a long email going into too much detail and not moving forward. If you have five questions to ask, pick up the phone. For one or two questions, create a bulleted list at the very end of your email.
8. When you get a complete answer, nothing more is necessary. A “thank you” email will generate a ‘you’re welcome” email, and the game of ping-pong is on again. The exception to this is an acknowledgment that you have received an attachment or complicated research.
9. Most of us hit reply right after we’ve read an email. Try closing the email instead. You’ll find you don’t re-open many of those, stopping ping-pong email before it starts.
10. If you detect an argument coming on, stop the emails. “He said/she said” emails, defensive explanations and other invitations to continue a debate are time sucks not worth pursuing. A few days ago, I expressed disappointment to someone who sent me what I interpreted as a business phishing email. The writer told me I “had no right to be disappointed,” and went on to explain why I should use accept the proposal. A very smart boss once told me, “If you don’t want to cultivate a pen-pal, stop writing.” And I did. Expressing my disappointment made my case; the other person defended the proposal. If I’d answered it, we’d have a ping-pong match. I didn’t reply and the discussion ended.
The best way to save time is by closing the email right after you’ve read it. That gives you time to decide whether or not it needs a reply. Clicking on “reply” right after reading sends the ping-pong email into the other person’s court.
–Quinn McDonald writes and leads workshop on effective communication. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2008 All rights reserved.