Software

5 e-mail habits that waste time and cause problems


Few communications tools give you as much exposure as e-mail. Unfortunately, mistakes in your e-mail will receive that same exposure as well. Depending on who sees your e-mail, your job, reputation, or career could suffer. Fortunately, avoiding these mistakes is easy. Here are five e-mail habits that annoy me (and maybe you as well) and what you can do differently.


Check out this follow-up article for a look at five more e-mail missteps. Or download the PDF version of both installments.

#1: Vague or nonexistent subject line

Professor Woodward, who taught me contracts last year at Temple University Beasley School of Law, gave me one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever received. "When arguing a case," he often said, "make it easy for the judge to rule in your favor."

Apply that same principle to e-mail. That is, make it easy for recipients to know what your message is about. If you're like most people, you have an in-basket that summarizes your incoming messages, probably by date, sender, and subject. Don't you love it when you can get the information you need simply from the subject line? The sender has made it easy for you and has saved you time.

On the other hand, how often have you received an e-mail without a subject or one that's labeled, for example, "Phone number you requested." Why couldn't the sender have said, right in the subject line, "The phone number is xxx-xxx-xxxx"?

When sending an e-mail that concerns a particular person, give details in the subject line, along with the name. For example, if Joe Brown has been promoted, make your subject line "Joe Brown has been promoted." Do not use only the name as the subject. If you send out an e-mail with just the subject "Joe Brown," recipients may mistakenly believe that Mr. Brown has passed on.

In the event you do need to transmit such sad news, be explicit. For example, say "Joe Brown RIP" or "Passing of Joe Brown" or "Joe Brown [year of birth] - [year of death]."

#2: Changing the topic without changing the subject

Have you ever read an advertisement for an item that's on sale, then gone to the store only to discover that that item is sold out? By law, the store has to give you a rain check, because of abuses in the past. In the old days, the store would simply try to sell you something else instead, a practice known as "bait and switch."

E-mail users employ bait and switch all too often, usually out of laziness. For example, you send a note to a co-worker about subject 1. That co-worker later needs to send a note to you on subject 2. However, instead of creating a new note and labeling it "subject 2," he or she simply replies to you, discusses subject 2, but keeps the subject line as "subject 1." Annoying, isn't it? When you send e-mail, make sure the subject line matches the actual subject. If you're going to send a note via a reply, change the subject line to match the actual subject.

A few months ago, during a period of really cold weather, a neighbor sent an e-mail to all the residents of our development regarding a neighborhood telephone directory, and titled it "neighborhood directory." A half hour later, I received a reply-to-all message from another neighbor with the subject "Re: neighborhood directory." When I accidentally clicked on that message, I read that the sender's heater had broken and that he was asking to borrow blankets and kerosene heaters. He did get what he needed and did later get his heater fixed. However, had he given his note a better subject heading, he might have had a faster response.

#3: Including multiple subjects in one note

Covering multiple topics in one note involves less sending and hence less e-mail traffic and volume. However, your recipient might overlook one or more of those topics. It's better to keep to one topic per message.

#4: Sending before thinking

When you were small, your mother probably told you to count to three before responding to someone (mine told me to count to 10). Why did she say that? She knew that answering before thinking can lead to problems.

Make sure you really mean to say what you've written. People can interpret your words differently from what you meant. A statement made in jest to someone via e-mail may have a greater chance of being misinterpreted than one made in person. Also, be careful about reacting and replying too quickly to an e-mail that upsets you. As Proverbs 12:16 says, "A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult."

I'll talk more about it in a future article, but legal implications offer another reason to think before sending. E-mail can be subject to "discovery" by attorneys for a party that might be suing your employer. That is, the things you write in your e-mail could end up in the hands of those attorneys and could be used as evidence against your company in a trial. So before you send an e-mail, imagine that you're on a witness stand having to explain it.

#5: Inadvertent replying to all

Before hitting Reply To All, make sure you really need to do so. Does everyone need to see your response? Does your response benefit everyone else? Or are you sending merely a private response or addressing a personal issue with the sender? In these situations, it's better just to do a simple Reply. Otherwise, your private disagreement becomes public (and embarrassing) knowledge.

Be aware that if you receive a message because you're part of certain message groups (e.g., a Yahoo group), your reply might go to everyone in the group even if you just hit Reply.

Do you recognize yourself in any of these mistakes? The good news is that once you recognize these issues, it's easy to address them.


I welcome any comments or questions you may have. My e-mail is csun@calvinsun.com.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

85 comments
kcamp1
kcamp1

This is my all time biggest email pet peeve. I can't stand people emailing me by replying to something I sent them 6 months ago!

peppper010
peppper010

OMG! Please, please, don't send email that has a header: OMG! or YOU WON'T BELIEVE THIS, or similar. I can't believe how many people tend to lose their minds briefly while doing email, (OK, me too now and then.) The minute something zings into my box with some sort of non-informative header like OMG!, I just want to zip it back and say "sorry, God is out of the office today, but thank you for emailing." (or: "Mr. Ripley has passed away, but I'm sure someone will believe this." ;} So far, I've restrained myself from doing so.

c45207
c45207

"#2: Changing the topic without changing the subject" When doing this, be sure to start a new thread too (Hit "New", re-address the message, and enter a new subject; simply changing the subject is not sufficient). That way, your new messages about "Free Kittens" is not burried under the old thread about "Cleaning the Storage Closet".

davidkramer
davidkramer

Speaking of wasting time with e-mail, I'd like the 10 seconds of my life back that I wasted reading this article. Edited by moderator. Message was edited by: beth.blakely@...

r.rangachar
r.rangachar

I totally agree with you! Good points. One more I'd like to add...mass mailing! It's a pain to get mass mails that are sent to everyone, and clearly you do not know where the direction is to you (but then of course, somewhere in the end there's a one liner that says (your name) how are you? blah blah. Not necessary! Send me a direct mail with the point! right?? http://ra-i-ka.blogspot.com

GoodOh
GoodOh

Here we are complaining about the time wasting of bad subject lines in a service that defaults the subject line to "RE: 5 e-mail habits that waste time and cause problems" over and over again. Perhaps some reflection on the message in the original post might make the forum master rethink their default settings to avoid this situation. [EDIT - Change default subject line]

ginkep
ginkep

Blah.. blah.. blah.. These rules are valid only for lower position workers in company's hierarchy. For others - they simply don't care and staring at you: "Who are you to teach me!?"

captxunderpants
captxunderpants

Email is one of the worst things to ever hit the office. Pick up the phone, call. It's done. Over. I've seen people spend 15-20 minutes composing an email because they're too damned gutless to just pick up the phone and deal with it. I also think people say a lot of stupid things in email that they wouldn't say in person, like how people in cars are rude to each other in ways they would never be if face to face. There are good reasons for email, and in those cases I agree with #1 - Suggesting a meeting Changing a meeting time Announcing that some document/webpage/notice or something has been changed.

vic.annells
vic.annells

Point 3 Multiple subjects Hey good stuff here apart from this one, are you suggesting you prefer four emails with one point each rather than one with four points? Not me!

pag_tan
pag_tan

ya. #2 :-> the common habits of didn't change the subject title. This will be problem to seaching the information at later stage.

jimba
jimba

one topic per e-mail, just right.

jimba
jimba

One topic per e-mail just right.

groovygirl
groovygirl

I'm only a victim of #1 but that's because I use the subject line for what I learned a subject to be in English class. Maybe someone should come up with an e-mail interface with the Subject line named something else like "Title" or "Headline" and start a revolution. And maybe e-mail interfaces should have another function like 'Post Quick Response' that puts Re: - in the subject line.

Oh Boy!
Oh Boy!

Actually, why do emails even bother to have a "Subject:" line? Why isn't that feature just removed all together? One can simple write "Subject:" in the body of the email. Why am I even responding to this? I have things to do.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Since that's the age of the discussion you dug up.

btljooz
btljooz

You're so good at 'editing/deleting' messages... WHY do we have a 'default' subject line instead of the "Title of Reply" box when posting a comment to an ARTICLE????? Maybe you could use some of your time investigating THAT! Thank you. BTW: no need to try to contact me ;)

doaks
doaks

There have been some great examples e-mail habits to avoid, but one critical item is still missing from the list. When an e-mail "chain" has occurred, one should ALWAYS review the content of previous emails that are included, and delete judiciously. I have seen situations where great embarrassment and/or hard feelings have come about when an e-mail that has built a reply/forward history includes unprofessional language, grievances that were being aired "privately" to a supervisor who forwarded it to a superior, who replied to a group and so on. In the same vein, NEVER put something in an e-mail if you would be mortified if it was forwarded around - there is no guarantee that it won't be.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Annoying, isn't it? There used to be a Title box when posting a comment directly to an article, not just when responding to an earlier post. I'll start a discussion on it, but I'm going to wait until next week so it will get maximum attention from the other members.

Mdubu
Mdubu

Good subject lines are important for people at any level within an organization. Like everyone else these days, I am swamped with email every day, and I don't have a lot of time to pore through each and every one of them trying to figure out what the sender's point or request is. You need to make your message stand out from the crowd. The bottom line is, if your email doesn't have a meaningful subject line, or if you bury your main point somewhere below the second paragraph, you are probably not going to get the response you were seeking. The first thing I want to see in any message is something clearly explaining "why do I need to see this?"--i.e., give me a reason to continue reading, or else it's on to the next message.

shardeth-15902278
shardeth-15902278

Pick the medium that fits the message. Usually we start with email or IM, which can easily be turned into calendar or task items, with all details intact, and the ability to review the entire thread for overlooked details. When the issue becomes complex or difficult to efficiently handle via these methods, then we arrange a voice call to allow for a more rapid exchange of information. On the other hand, I'd prefer my cell phone to be the first mode of commnication for the message "The server is on fire!".

online
online

*I'm far more articulate and clear when I write than when I speak. * Sending an email provides a paper trail and proof that I said the things I said and you said the things you said. *I can't stuff a graphic or document attachment down the phone line. *Email allows me to engage in multiple conversations at the same time, since communications is asnychronous. Phone conversations about many routine matters are a waste of time.

banana_spliff
banana_spliff

For some, particularly messaging administrators, the telephone is a frustrating tool. If I get an email, I can quickly refer back to it to see what someone needs, and work step-by-step. My job does not permit me to perform whatever is being requested on-the-fly while I have someone on the phone, and there is the inevitable hand-holding that I simply do not have time for. I would rather exchange a dozen emails back and forth to make sure someone's mailbox is created with just the right information and settings than trade phone calls. At least I can use email sigs to add frequently-used text; I can't play a recorded message into the mouthpiece to save myself some time. It's awful of me, I know, but I am too impatient to deal with people on the phone. With email, they tell me what they need, and then they go away. I'm not held hostage by the other person's chattering away at the other end of the line. Yes, in a past life, I had cultivated a pleasant telephone voice, but I'm not here for your listening pleasure, and I wouldn't have gravitated to email administration if I wanted to spend all day on the phone!

msmith
msmith

E-mail leaves a paper trail, so for any business related tasks, I prefer to use it. I know what I have agreed to do, been told to do, etc., and can prove it. I can tell that I have responded to questions and how. And I've played enough phone tag that wastes far more time than any short e-mail. The phone is great if we are trying to work out fine details, but I still like to follow confirming e-mail, either to me from the other party or from me.

Sereniti
Sereniti

Make a call to handle something, and later you're going to hear, "You didn't tell me that," or "But I told you I would handle it this afternoon." Phone calls contribute to he said/she said big time. Email makes it clear. You might have to admit you didn't read it, but short of deleting and saying you never got it (most offices won't allow for flat-out deletion), you can't say it wasn't presented.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I say a lot more stupid things over the phone than I do in e-mail. On the phone I tend to shoot from the hip too much. E-mail gives me time to get my thoughts together and clearly present my position. It also gives me a record of what I said on a subject or the details of what someone wanted me to do. I hate having to write down someone's voice mail, especially if it's full of details. If they talk fast or are in a noisy environment, I have to keep replaying the message. People don't realize that while they know their own phone number and can rattle it off at high speed without thinking, the message recipient who has never heard the number before may not be able to make it out on a voice message. Then they say their number last and I have to wait through the entire message before I can try again to hear what they're saying. Say your phone number early in the message, slowly, one digit at a time.

GoodOh
GoodOh

It's boring to hear this same old refrain about how 'email is bad'. It's just a tool. It can be used well or badly. The fact that some misuse it and that gets the attention ignores the fact that many use it well and that gets no attention. Good, effective and smooth communication just flows through without attracting notice. It's the blunders that we remember. Suggesting that a quick, badly thought through phone call (or dragging a gang of people into a meeting room at a time inconvenient for most) is usually better than a well conducted email exchange is an obvious fallacy. Of course both options might be the best option in some cases but I'd suggest that's a lot rarer than the 'anti-email' brigade would like to acknowledge. Ultimately if "Email is one of the worst things to ever hit the office." was true then it's adoption means that almost every manager in almost every company is a blithering idiot for not removing it or seriously limiting access and use. Or could the vocal minority have it wrong?

jdilena
jdilena

If the other does not answer you can waste plenty of time

online
online

on your defintion of "points." For instance, the post that started this all has five points, but all on a single topic -- thus one post. However, I would want to separate messages about the departmental budget and the departmental picnic, even though they both are about the same department.

GoodOh
GoodOh

A series of connected questions on a single subject that obviously flow one to the next might belong together. Once a new subject area is entered into a new email is called for. Omnibus query lists are awful to open and deal with. Especially when they end up needing to be broken down and referred piecemeal to relevant experts. Better to err on the side of a series of short emails than one long one. This is especially true when dealing with people who will only have limited time to respond between other commitments, or flights. If people have a serious list of questions then it might be time to write a proper 'paper' and/or schedule a meeting.

luigiraponi
luigiraponi

What such on capital letters? It gives to me the impression the person that wrote is screaming. It hurts me.

GoodOh
GoodOh

This is a good point. With email such a common medium why do so few firms have standards for what they expect in a subject line and explain these at induction? I tend to attempt to write subject lines that descend from broad to narrow categorisation to help with this. For Example: 'ACTION - Project X - Next Mtg - 23 July 2012 - Agenda' 'INFO - Project X - Component Y - Progress Report' But what I get sent to me is - 'Agenda' or 'Progress to date' which require opening to work out what they are about. Why do people who would never imagine using the phone for business the same way they use it for social purposes fail to use different styles for email? And the answer is; they have never been told what is expected. I now see a few firms using email rules that force the sender to makes some choices between 'ACTION / INFO' 'HIGH / LOW PRIORITY' and the like which is a step forward but doesn't replace some good training and written standards.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You don't include a theme and character motivation too, do you :-)

online
online

You might as well ask why newspaper articles have headlines or why books have titles. Subject lines are (or should be) a quick way of determining what a message is about. All email clients sort by subject. Can you imagine sorting by body? All your messages would be in order by "Good morning" or "Hi" or even "The".

brucelloyd
brucelloyd

- Most e-mail systems let you sort by the subject field so you can find sent and recieved items faster. - Rules can be set based on words in the subject so new mail is automatically moved (deleted or forwarded) to desired folders just like a paper filing system. It will still show as unread so you don't miss any action items.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It makes it easy to remember what the message is about without having to open it, especially if you have multiple messages from the same sender.

Beth Blakely
Beth Blakely

And I don't know why... The original item isn't technically an article, it's a blog post. The commenting for blog posts has been like that for a few months now. Blogs aren't my area, but I'll alert The Trivia Geek to your criticisms. What's with the "don't bother to contact me" stuff? ;-)

Fredz
Fredz

email -- record hard information that other people could use and disseminate, not conversation. text -- a quickie email, not complete english, but not gibberish, more conversational

rbird
rbird

i get equally annoyed by people who refuse to use capitalization and punctuation in their email messages making them difficult to read plus it looks amateurish. or using text messaging lingo 2 write 2 u

GoodOh
GoodOh

Hear, hear {eom}

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

I agree with you completely, but have you ever tried to formulate a set of rules or policies regarding email subject lines? Even if you can get a comprehensive policy, a lot of people will ignore it anyway. I'm breaking rule #3 here, but I have a tendency to delete messages that have "Hello" as the subject line without reading them.

zclayton2
zclayton2

For one thing, it will keep the email out of my spam filter. If you can't tell me what you're sending, I don't need to read it.

Sereniti
Sereniti

Capital letters and punctuation are proper English form, and not just because "it's always been done that way." It's a "graphic" representation of the flow of content and makes meaning more clear. Just because YOU don't see a "purpose" to using proper English, punctuation, and grammar, doesn't mean there isn't one. Eliminating proper formation of English composition tells your correspondent, "I am ignorant, and/or I have no respect for you, and/or I don't care whether my meaning is clear," and all because it's just too much trouble to move your pinky finger to the shift key. You may be the only English-speaking person on earth who finds that removal of capitals and some punctuation does not impede your understanding of the content you read. Bravo! Leave it out in your blogs and personal correspondence if you want to make a statement. But for business communication - including a message board like this - respect your less-accomplished readers by using properly-written English. Off-topic trivia: In written German, the first-person singular pronoun, "ich", (equivalent to "I") is never capitalized unless it begins a sentence, while the formal, second-person singular pronoun, "Sie" (equivalent to "you",)is always capitalized, signifying that the writer holds the reader in higher regard than he/she holds him/herself. I've always thought that was more civilized. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, only in English is the first-person pronoun capitalized. Kind of an ego thing, eh?

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

i have no problem with using punctuation when i see a purpose in it; for example full-stops to indicate the end of a sentence, but what i have never understood is how using capital letters for 'i', real names or at the beginning of sentences is supposed to improve my reading experience. that's why i am starting this campaign to remove unnecessary punctuation from the english language. les.

Sereniti
Sereniti

Yes, that bad habit is EXTREMELY annoying; more than any of these other "rules," it smacks of ignorance and disrespect. However, I may be a little forgiving if I know my correspondent's first language is not English. It does have an up side, though. It helps you quickly weed out the morons! "NEXT..." and on I move.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

I think I'll write a parser for the OdD sTyLEs TheY aRe POStinG in TheSe daYs,

GoodOh
GoodOh

I run a rule that sends anything with 'Hello' as the subject straight to spam. Excepted are a lift of names that I expect would send me this kind of email. The rest go into the spam folder and when the odd angry phone call results I explain that 'my spam filter' dumped it because of the bad subject line and could they please send it again with a more meaningful subject. Amusingly some people do this several times a week and never seem to learn from the experience. The fact that these people are permitted to breed is slightly distressing to me [haha].