Think about how many emails you receive — and send — on a given workday. Now consider what percentage of those emails is actually helpful and timely, and what portion is potentially burdensome or even a bit unnecessary? That’s what Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely, Ph.D., dug into in research he shared in The Atlantic. Ariely’s goal was to see if there were any behavioral tricks that could make the stressful experience of email any better for all of us. So to start, he put out a survey, and found a full third of emails people received were deemed not worthy of reading at all.
The truth is, emailing has become a rather mindless reality of our workflow. But it’s time we all started to become more conscientious about the notes we dash off. If we’re not mindful of how we want our communication to come across — or what the other person might be expecting — “it’s fairly easy to make a mistake that somehow might disappoint or annoy,” John Suler, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and professor at Rider University, tells Thrive.
While you don’t have much control over the messages that end up in your inbox, you do have the power to change your own email style so it’s a better experience for the receiver. Use this advice to use email communication more efficiently and respectfully — and, hopefully, set an example for the kinds of notes you’d like to get in return, too.
Be clear and concise
Cryptic subject lines like “??” or “Reminder” can be puzzling at best and panic-provoking at worst. Instead, communicate the reason you’re writing and clearly articulate what you need. “If [your subject line] can be your entire email, do it,” James Hamblin, M.D., preventative health physician and senior editor at The Atlantic, says in an episode of the video series “If Our Bodies Could Talk.” As for the body of your email, don’t bury the lede! Even better (when possible): Stick to three sentences or fewer, Hamblin suggests. This strategy also makes it easier for anyone to pull up your email later on, if they need to revisit it. Fact: There’s nothing worse than going on a wild goose chase through your inbox only to find client specs under the subject line “Hi” — or worse, “(no subject)”.
Think before you CC
One of the most stress-inducing email practices has less to do with what you’re writing, and everything to do with who you’re looping in. CC’ing the boss is a go-to protocol in many workplaces, but this runs the unintended risk of demoralizing team members and undercutting their sense of self-efficacy, according to research reported in the Harvard Business Review. Before you copy a supervisor, pause to consider whether they really need to be on the thread, or if there’s another way to update them offline. Besides helping to keep the boss’ inbox clutter-free, you’ll also be building trust with the recipient of your email — exactly the kind of strategy that helps teams thrive.
Send your emails on a “batch delivery” schedule
Most people are knee-jerk emailers: Have thought, send email. Rarely do we stop to consider the timing of our sends, especially when what we’re communicating isn’t urgent. However, Ariely’s survey revealed that 17 percent of emails didn’t actually need to be read until the end of the day. To spare yourself and those around you from the 24/7 soundtrack of annoying inbox pings, you could adopt an idea from Gloria Mark, Ph.D., a researcher and professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Mark is an advocate of “email batching,” or sending emails at a few set points in the day, she tells The Atlantic: first thing in the morning, after lunch, and end of day. You can still write the meeting recap while it’s fresh in your mind, but keep it in your drafts folder until it’s time to deploy.
Ask yourself: Should I say this one-on-one?
Sometimes the best way to handle an email is not to send one at all. If you’re communicating something that has the potential to be taken out of context, or is just too nuanced, consider delivering the message over the phone or in person, if you can. As one study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found, a live exchange is 34 times more likely to be met with a positive response than one that happens over email. Bonus: You’re more persuasive IRL than you are over email.
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