One of the most important career lessons we can learn is that work is not synonymous with email. Treating email like the tool that it is rather than making it the end-all, be-all is essential to bring some sanity to our days. For many of us now living in this always-on virtual work world, our inboxes can feel like they run our lives. If you’re making these email mistakes, now is a good time to reset.
1. The “reply-all” catastrophe
There is no horror like the horror of a reply-all fail. Whether it was your error or you are bearing witness to someone’s quick trigger finger failure, it’s painful. If at all possible, train yourself out of any reply-all habit. Make a single reply your general default, and anytime you are inclined to reply to a group, ask yourself, “Does everyone on this note really need to take action or be immediately informed of this development?” The answer is almost always no.
2. Unclear takeaways
Email is an enabler, not a task unto itself. With that in mind, try to stay disciplined and not fire off emails without a clear call to action. Do recipients need to schedule a meeting? Make a decision? Act on a client need? As you would any other compelling communication, close your email with the exact action item you need from someone, using their name, what you’re expecting, and by when. “Amy, Could you be sure to call the client with this update before 5pm tomorrow and let me know their response?”
3. Super long emails
In the same way that many meetings “could have been an email,” sometimes we find ourselves in an email chain that a quick call or huddle could fix. If you find yourself three or four replies into a group conversation, suggest cutting the thread short and putting everyone on the phone for a “huddle.” Use the time to drive toward decisions or clarity, and keep it 15 minutes tops.
4. Getting the tone wrong
Being too formal or too casual can blow up an email. As a rule of thumb, the less you’ve worked directly with a person, the more you should have a formal and professional email approach. Seniority also still matters here. Your manager’s boss, or others up in the organization should get your best foot forward on an email, even if it is a quick ask. It’s also important to bring a little humanity to your emails as your relationship with people grows over time. “Hope you had a good weekend!” can go far with a closer colleague when you’re firing off a note over an early Monday morning need.
5. Not sleeping on it
If there’s a shred of controversy in your note and you don’t need to send it immediately, sleep on it. I have yet to meet an email that I haven’t made better by giving it another 18 hours to think through. Even if you’re not actively crafting a new note, you’ve stepped away from a possibly heated response or complicated question, and your subconscious will come back to it with a better version.
6. Misusing BCC
BCC is a tricky beast. There’s definitely a shred of embarrassment when a recipient realizes they weren’t in actual copy, but responds to a larger note. Be really thoughtful about your motivations for using it. If you’re trying to keep a message private, a forward with a caveated note may be better. Another smart way to use BCC is to call attention to moving people into the BCC line and announce the gesture. “While we go back and forth on meeting details, dropping Sarah and John to BCC to spare their inboxes! We’ll come back with a final plan.”
7. Leaving the subject line static
Especially after vacation, piles of responses tied to the same subject line is dreadful. (The cleanup feature in Microsoft can help.) However, it’s always such a joy when you’ve found a note where someone has gone to the trouble of amending the subject. Did you add an attachment? “With Meeting Notes” gets added to the subject line. Is someone giving a new perspective? “Including Audit Team for Comment.” These little nuggets are also my own useful trail for finding where ideas diverge in a mountain of sent emails.
8. Being unaware of time zones and holidays
One of the most thoughtful signature blocks I’ve ever seen included the line “I’m sending this email because it suits me and my time zone. I do not expect responses outside of your normal working hours unless expressly indicated.” In our especially global world, it can be hard to stay on top of people’s respective time zones, relocations, and personal holidays. Adding an indication that you know they may be otherwise occupied and clearly stating your timelines is both professional and courteous.
9. Being the first one to reply
There are definitely moments where you’re the best one to jump in with an addition or reply. However, most of the time, sparing yourself as the first response pays dividends. First, if we truly run our workday like email is not our job, you shouldn’t be in your email all day. That means that realistically, hours could go by before you get to an email. Try testing the waters in a small way here if holding off on responses feels uncomfortable. Start with notes where you’re in a group of respondents. You may find it surprising to see how self-sufficient people are, or how effectively a conversation advances without you needing to jump in.
10. Rushing the send
“Rushing the send” is the sister of being the first to reply. Slow. Down. All of us are going a million miles an hour these days, but taking that extra few minutes to edit something is hugely beneficial. Are all the right people on this email? Does it have a clear, actionable purpose? Is it as long as it needs to be, but as short as it can be? Giving yourself a little personalized email checklist before you hit send can sharpen your communication skills and your professional profile.
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