There are an endless amount of tips and hacks that promise to finally help us get control over our email inboxes, from creating folders to color coding priority senders to removing Gmail from your phone and hoping your emails just answer themselves. But as Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College writes in this piece for Harvard Business Review, we might be overthinking it. The real strategy to inbox management might be asking ourselves if we really need to send those emails in the first place.
The average person checks their email “upwards of seventy times per day,” Argenti writes, citing research from the University of California Irvine, Microsoft Research and the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On the extreme end, that number can inch closer to 350 times a day. Argenti also points to research that supports the familiar feeling that email is stressful, overwhelming and eats up huge blocks of your time.
To spend less time in the weeds of your inbox, focus more on general time management and priority setting, Argenti writes. He outlines more detailed tips about how to achieve these in his article, but we’ll focus on few key takeaways specifically about email.
First and foremost, before we hit send, Argenti urges us to take a step back and think: should this email be sent at all? He outlines a very relatable situation: “Most of the power in an email is with the sender. An unsent email does not require a response, and a sent email initiates a series of actions or inactions (arguably just as active a decision) on the part of the recipient,” he writes.
This includes when you’re sending messages, especially if you’re a manager. If you’re using email as a reminder (hint: not a great organization habit) and sending a direct report something over the weekend, it could affect your relationship with them and infringe on their time away from the office.
As we’ve written before, email is often less effective than a face-to-face conversation “given the asynchronous nature of the interaction,” Argenti writes. And while the ubiquity of email can make it harder to remember what it’s good for, it’s important to keep in mind that it isn’t a “long form kind of communication,” Argenti writes, “but rather a delivery system for information.” That means it’s probably not ideal for “all our daily communications although most of us treat it as such,” he notes. But if you have to send the email, ask yourself “Who is my audience?” and “What message do I need to convey?”
Asking yourself those questions can make email better before you even press send, both for you and your company at large. Some other helpful tips Argenti mentions are establishing organization-wide norms about the purpose of “to” versus “cc” so that people being copied know they are being included “for information purposes only and are not expected—indeed are discouraged—from participating in further discussion,” he writes.
Other things to consider, Argenti points out, are the basics, like how you’re formatting the email. “Nobody responds well to a massive block of text,” he writes. Instead, put the necessary info up top where they can better catch your reader’s eye.
And remember before you decide whether to “cc” or directly email someone, or what to put in bold versus bullet points, ask yourself if you’re better off giving someone a phone call or meeting with them face-to-face instead. And if you do need to send an email, be sure to include how, and by when, you want a response. Your inbox—and coworkers—will thank you.
Read the full piece on the Harvard Business Review here.