If you want less email, send less email.
That was one of the productivity hacks ETR Editor Craig Ballantyne shared during his coaching call Wednesday night. That’s great advice and I recommend you follow it.
Another email hack I really like is, limit your emails to no more than five sentences. I’ve noticed a lot of people adopting this rule, however, I’m considering dropping it, I’ll explain.
In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he talks about a method he uses called process-centric email. Basically, you determine what follow-up questions your email recipient will have to your original email and you address them from the start.
Cal gives this example in a post he wrote called Write Longer Emails:
Assume a friend sends you a note that reads:
Do you want to grab coffee sometime soon?
Resist the urge to reply: “okay, what works for you?”
Sure, that message would be quick to write, but it does not outline a clear process that minimizes back and forth messages. Indeed, it is likely consigning you to a long, attention zapping thread.
Here, by contrast, is a process-centric reply:
Sounds great. I propose we meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I have listed four dates and times over the next two weeks. If any of these work for you, let me know and I will consider your reply confirmation that the meeting is set. If none of these times work, then call me or text me on my cell () during one of my upcoming office hours (Tue/Thur from 12:30 to 1:30), when I’m sure to be around, and we’ll find something that works.
What is your gut reaction to this revised email?
Mine is, that’s crazy!
I get this probably works, but how robotic and nerdy are you willing to get in the name of productivity? Not to mention, it’s confusing. That email was setting up a simple coffee date. Imagine applying process-centric email to a more complex assignment.
I agree you don’t want to get into back and forth email conversations all the time so anticipating some of the questions is helpful. But I think you also need to take into context the productivity methods you adopt.
A smarter approach is to find the big levers that produce more “productivity bang” for your buck.
A good analogy is how you accumulate wealth. There are two approaches you can take. You can take an offensive approach (increase your income) or a defensive approach (cut down on expenses).
A lot of wealthy people lean toward the offensive approach, but it’s best to have a combination of the two.
Where most people go wrong in their defensive approach is they spend too much time and energy trying to cut out small daily expenses, like their daily trip to Starbucks.
A better, and smarter approach is to cut down on the big three expenses in your life: transportation, food, and housing.
If you can find ways to reduce the cost of these three expenses, you’ll dramatically reduce your monthly living costs. The cool thing about this approach is you can apply it to more than just your daily living.
Say you go on vacation, focus your savings on these three areas and you dramatically reduce the cost of your trip. By saving on your hotel, flights, and restaurants, you save more money than you would if you were to focus your savings on tickets to shows, or tours, etc. And by saving more, you can feel less guilty about splurging on one or two of these other expenses.
How is this related to email?
It’s dumb to focus your time and energy on hacking away at the minutia of email productivity.
Sure, you’ll reduce the back and forth and the amount of opening and closing of your inbox and email threads. But, you’ll just end up spending that saved time crafting longer emails that address all the possible outcomes, and answering confused follow-up emails from your recipients that you normally wouldn’t receive. Essentially, you’ll break even.
A better approach is to focus on the big levers. Send less email to receive less email OR send really long, confusing emails, with no spaces, and lots of questions — a sure fire way to get no reply.
I’m not kidding. When I originally read the title of Cal’s post “Write Longer Emails,” that’s what I thought he was going to advocate. Something along the lines of, “To receive no email, write longer, more annoying emails.”
To my disappointment, his post was not about that. But I think it’s maybe worth considering.
What email hacks do you use? Share in the comments section below.
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