One Easy Way to Be a Better Emailer

29 June 2017

This is a typical occurrence for my inbox: One minute it’ll be empty, and the next it’ll have a dozen emails from my project manager at Panda (my manufacturer).

For a while I thought this was because Chris was reserving a certain time every few days to reply to my emails and catch me up on production. But when I had the rare chance to chat in person with Chris a few weeks ago, I learned the truth. It’s actually quite clever.

The reason Chris sends batches of email all at once is that he’s learned that things can–and often do–change over the course of a day. So instead of sending an e-mail as soon as he’s written it, he either leaves it in drafts or schedules it to send later in the day. That way if something changes, he doesn’t have to send a contradictory email; rather, he can just edit the original.

Here are a few examples of the problems this method helps to avoid:

  • Yesterday a translator informed me of a typo in the Charterstone proofs, so I sent an email to my graphic designer with the change. Then the same translator found another, so I sent another email. We both sent 2 emails when we could have sent 1, and now when I get the revised proofs to approve, I have to hunt down 2 sources instead of 1.
  • More frequently than I’d like to admit, I send Chris an approval, decision, or quantity, only to change my mind a few minutes or hours later. There’s something about the finality of making a decision that sends my brain into overdrive to ensure that it’s correct. I could save us both trouble by scheduling the e-mail instead of sending it, which would trick my brain into thinking it’s final while still letting me edit the original message before it’s sent.
  • Even though Chris is my project manager at Panda, a huge part of my job is also project management: coordinating between lots of different people and keeping track of all the different moving pieces. It’s common for different people to contribute to the same topic at different times. And yes, I’m sure someone in the comments will note that I could use Slack, but I simply prefer email.

As much as I like this method, I’ve had a really hard time converting to it. My instinct is to reply to every email instantly and write every new email as soon as possible. But I’ve started using it more, particularly as I’ve coordinated a ton of simultaneous translations of Charterstone and The Wind Gambit, and it’s proved to be really helpful.

Have you ever tried this technique? Do you have any clever email strategies to share? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Also read: Kickstarter Lesson #72: The 10 Elements of Great Customer Service for a Kickstarter Creator and Kickstarter Lesson #221: How Not to Start Your Work Day

21 Comments on “One Easy Way to Be a Better Emailer

  1. I’m bad at this. I’m guilty of often asking questions too quickly when I need help, or replying with an answer to a question before I even have the whole answer. But I find that whenever I’m out on vacation or busy all day long and I don’t get a reply off to an email or IM at work, the problem often resolves itself. The person asking found the answer in the wiki I already created or took a little more time to try and work out a solution. I want to be better about taking a thoughtful approach to where I add value and where I don’t and be concise and complete where I do. Great post. Thanks.

  2. Hi Jamey,

    I use a “mix of both”.
    Commiting to 1 strategy would be easy to always follow that “rule” but doesn`t fir for me. I classify topics and tasks for “immediate responds” and for “wait” a couple of hours or days. 1 example – the wednesday gaming meetings – as soon as I open the email I reply and say yes – in that case it is done and of my “to do list” – and we all know that I already commited (as a person and with the family to this date) so why wait to reply? For the “weekend meetings” I need to double check, sometimes chat to other person etc. – so I have to wait before I make a final decison.

    The 2 tricky parts on this mix is a) to track your “open emails” and b) to make final decisions on “open tasks” because there is always other things to do.

    a) my email account has several folder – and the INBOX is “clean” – only open cases or things I have to make a decision later on or even to double check are in that inbox. Once a task is solved I move the email to another folder. I can go thru my 100 different “open emails” once a week and see what I have to do …..

    b) thats the part I haven`t solved – once a task is in the “future decisions” it stays there for some days. Of course I see the email every day and think about the email every day – but especially if that is something to do for example “this fall” – it stays there (to) long – every single hour new emails, calls, things to do hit me and I take care of that before I come back to the 1 “this fall” email … I hope some people have a solution for that.

    I tried it with outlook and making tasks there – but that is not working for me on multiple devices – so I usually ending up with pen and paper and little notes …… that is my 80s solution for that.

    Best
    Nils

    1. Nils: Thanks for sharing! I agree that it is tricky to keep track of your open emails and the things that you’re making decisions about. I use Outlook too, so I’m not aware of a solution that addresses problem (b).

  3. I apply the suggested technique, but only selectively. There are too many specific circumstances that make it impossible for me as a general rule.

    – Writing a mail but not sending it means I will have to reread it again when I finally send it. That’s very inefficient, when there is no change. So I “only” save an email for later, when I reasonably “expect” to have changes within my workday. This case happens, but is not the majority.

    – I have to take into account my counterpart. Am I holding him up by not responding earlier? Is he waiting for my response? Will he act on it? In that case, I would not want to make him wait and rather risk the unlikely (but certainly possible) evil of having to send a correction.

    This leads me to the one circumstance in which I use the technique very often: cross continent communication, i.e. very different time zones. Like your example of you and Chris.

    In that particular case, “saving your emails til the end of the day” has little to no impact on your counterpart, since his workday is very different than yours. You will answer all mails quickly during the overlap time you are BOTH working, but when you know he is out-of-business-hours, you can safely hold on to your mails, because it doesn’t make a difference to him.

  4. I’m not going to note that you could use Slack for project management, because I think Slack fills a very different role. If you’re trying to coordinate work and running into all of the problems most of us find with emails, I’d recommend using an actual task management software. I’m biased toward Asana, on account of working here, but I can’t imagine organizing my work and coordination with teammates without a tool like Asana anymore. Because the content of a task can be updated, with organization into projects, tasks, and sub-tasks, it’s a lot clearer to do things like note multiple translation errors, all living under a single parent task or project.

    I know it sounds pretty shill-ish to have my first post on your blog be an encouragement to use my company’s product, but I’ve been reading since the first time I played Euphoria, and I’d be excited to see people using our tool to create things I love.

    It’s also free for small teams, so might fit your needs without ever needing to pay a dime.

  5. I’m like you, I like to respond to an email right away. I don’t like having open items in my inbox. Similarly, I have responded too quickly to something and things either changed, or I didn’t really think about all the information that I needed to send and missed something, causing me to have to send another email… Now there is an email “out of sync” in the string and that can get confusing on what to respond to, or you end up having a response to both in one email and you don’t know which response goes to which one… It’s a mess. I like this idea and will try to incorporate it into my daily job!!!!

  6. I try really hard to treat every person that emails me as real human being and the email like it’s a real polite human interaction. Therefore I address every email with the person’s name like it’s a hand written letter, and sign with my own in the same manner. I don’t ever put my name in the “auto signature”, I always hand type it to keep me real, any my communications human.

  7. I work IT for a small business, and there are a handful of people who have their Outlook outbox set on a delay of 15 minutes or so. 15 minutes seems to be the right amount of time, for people whose work is non time sensitive. While some of told me this has “saved them” on more than one occasion, I think it’s a crutch. Communication is getting faster, not slower, and safety nets such as these these build bad habits. It might be more beneficial to accept that sending a correction email from time to time is just normal behavior. Well formed auto signatures in emails are the equivalent of business cards, and save people the effort from looking up/ asking for your other contact information. For me personally, knowing contacts time zones is particularly helpful.

  8. Regarding proofreading and emails. Using the “sticky notes” function in Adobe Acrobat when proofreading PDF files is a big time saver for me. I’ve been on both ends regarding this and it’s so much easier and eliminates silly misunderstandings that may happen when sending Messages via emails. ‘Cause you all are commenting on the same pdf-document. And it’s all trackable.
    Even better is a tool called WebProof. You really should check this out (http://www.webproof.com).

    1. Harald: Indeed, I use sticky notes too in Adobe–they work really well! Also, thanks for the recommendation about webproof. It looks like an effective project management app.

  9. Listen to The Get-it-done-guy podcast. They’re all about 7 minutes and they’re full of brilliant tips. It’s all about how to work less and do more. I’m sure you can track down a few about emails.

  10. This is something that I did not really consider before. Typically, I send/reply to emails right away. First, this makes me less likely to forget to do so in the future. Second, I feel like it is polite to reply quickly, because personally, quick responses are something that I appreciate- I like getting information. However, there is good merit to the points stated above. I will consider this, though it may not apply to all circumstances. Sometimes, I think that waiting that extra few minutes or hours would really avoid trouble. Thanks for the post!

    -MAR

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