Email Survival Tips for the Busy Professional

Lately I have been imagining what it was like to work in those halcyon PMS (Pre Microsoft) days before we were subject to the tyranny of the Outlook chirp – the modern day equivalent of the Mash “incoming” call. What was it like when news arrived in the paper and work came in via in-person meetings, fax, letters and telephone calls?

The Harvard Business Blog in April featured an email-related post from David Silverman “How to Revise an Email So That People Will Read It” that attracted a global outpouring of kudos and an exchange of best email practices. People around the world share a love hate relationship with email and strategies for dealing with it are becoming an increasingly vital component of professional life.

Email is stressing us out: “I just came back from vacation and I have 300 messages in my in-box.”

Email is getting us into trouble: “Are you sure you wanted to hit reply all? I don’t think the entire corporate group wanted to know about your hot night out following the client dinner.”

Email is breaking our concentration: In 2005 researchers from King’s College London examined the performance of three groups of people on IQ tests. The first group were able to work without interruptions on the test. The second group were interrupted by emails and phone calls. The third group were stoned on pot. Guess who performed the worst? Yes, even the stoners outperformed the multi-taskers.

Inspired by Silverman’s post here is my own checklist of strategies for dealing with email.

  • Start by checking out Silverman’s post and the comments that follow. It’s a great primer on what you need to know to get your messages read, and to avoid any email faux-pas along the way.
  • To make sure people catch requests for action, keep emails short and to the point. In the first paragraph explain the purpose of the message and clearly state what action/s you are requesting and the timeline.
  • For very short messages, for example “confirming meeting at noon today” put the message in the subject line followed by EOM (end of message). This way the person can glance at the message and delete it without opening.
  • Consider setting some boundaries to secure yourself some email free blocks of time during the day. I recommend a two hours once or twice a day for focusing in on any big projects requiring your concentration. Consider when you do your best work and make that your email free zone.
  • Determine a strategy for triage of messages. Many of us have our personal and business emails coming to the same in-box. If that is the case, experiment with your own systems for filing the low importance and low urgency messages to be dealt with at a later time. We all have down times during the day when it is hard to concentrate and be productive. Those are great times for cycling through the email backlog of low importance, low urgency messages.
  • Not all email messages require a rapid-fire response. Again, push some messages to the side for handling in one go at a later time in the day.
  • For emails dealing with sensitive, political, or inter-personal dynamics, get a second opinion from a trusted colleague before sending.
  • Never try to resolve a dispute over email. It just doesn’t work. Ever. (If you have ever succeeded then by all means comment on this post!) At the first whiff of trouble pick up the phone or if possible go meet with the person face-to-face.
  • Think twice before you copy or blind copy someone on a message. Do they really require their in-box filled more tangential stuff? Ask your team members, clients and colleagues about what they like to be copied on.
  • A word about blind copying. It is not appropriate to use the bcc function to communicate behind someone’s back. At best it makes you a coward, at worst a snitch.
  • In case you are one of those people who forward random bits of email flotsam to your friends, check in with them next time you are hanging out to find out if they like to receive the email jokes, horoscope, games or the chain messages you have been sending them.
  • Watch your tone. You don’t need little smiling emoticons to create a positive tone in a message. Your choice of words and phrasing can do a lot to convey a positive and respectful tone. If you prefer to email in short, cut to the chase bites, then let your colleagues and staff know and that is your preference and that you mean nothing negative, but please take more time for your messages with clients and others who may not know you so well.
  • Don’t write your messages in CAPITALS – it’s the email equivalent of yelling.
  • Finally, be careful about making negative assumptions about the tone or intent of an email message. Human communication is based mostly on sight and sound so with email we are really only getting a small part of the picture. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt. If you really feel there is a problem then address the person directly about it either face-to-face or on the phone.

What are your favourite email strategies? Please add a comment below to share your tips for dodging the etiquette minefields, capturing positive attention and swiftly navigating the endless flow of digital messages.


  1. The best thing that I have done is to turn off the chirp. I look at my e-mails when I want to, not when I am “told” to.