5 email mistakes that are wasting your time—and everyone else's

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, editor

Many people feel that their inboxes exist to make work harder, rather than easier, to do. And the data suggests they're right.

Email takes up 23% of the average employee's workday, the Harvard Business Review reported in 2016. And in a 2014 analysis of 17 organizations, researchers at Bain & Co. discovered one executive who spent four hours per week on unnecessary emails. This, combined with hours of meetings and other minutia, left him with only 11 hours per week for his core job tasks.

If these scenarios sound familiar, it's likely that you're making one of these common mistakes that slow you down when writing or processing email. Changing a few of these habits will not only save you time, but will also make your emails faster for your colleagues to read, making everyone's work life easier.

Mistake 1: Using email for long messages

People are most likely to respond to messages between 50 and 125 words long, according to a 2015 user analysis by Boomerang. Productivity expert Chris Baily recommends limiting yourself to three sentences. If it needs to be longer, he suggests it "might be a conversation that's better had over the phone.

However, Shani Harmon, co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This, cautions that there is such a thing as too short.

One potential pitfall, she says, is giving so little context that you end up with "high volume of clarifying questions in response."

The other pitfall is reducing the length of your email by cutting out the little pleasantries people expect, which can make it come across as rude or insensitive. "There's a big difference between being concise and being terse," warns Harmon. "Take the time to be nice," she says, and "it will help your audience truly hear what you intended to say."

Mistake 2: Not making it clear what you want

Do you ever get replies to your emails that completely ignore the question you asked?

This happened to me a lot early in my career, and I realized that it was often because I buried my question in so much background explanation that it was easy to miss my point entirely. Now that I know to watch out for it, I see a lot of people making this same mistake.

To avoid this problem, Harmon recommends telling your readers right at the top what you expect as a result of your email. If it's a question that needs a response, make that apparent right away. If it's an informative email, be sure to explain to your readers why they should care.

For example, Harmon proposes:

  • Including the type of email in the subject line;
  • Bolding the names of the recipients expected to take action; and
  • Stating the request at the beginning of the message, so that it appears in the preview pane.

Mistake 3: Processing email as soon as it arrives

Remember that most emails can wait. Tanya Golash-Boza, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced, says it's all about setting priorities. "When you check your email first thing in the morning, you are attending to everyone else's needs before even thinking about what is most important for you to accomplish that day," she writes.

Instead, Golash-Boza suggests setting aside 30 minutes in the morning to respond to important messages and time in the afternoon to follow up on emails that are less urgent. Limiting email to certain blocks of time is a practice that's been found to reduce stress and improve productivity.

Not only does the habit help you get through email more efficiently, but it also means that you can be more strategic about the timing of your reply emails. Messages sent in the morning and during lunch have the highest response rates, according to Boomerang. And by sending emails within a specific window, you set others' expectations about when you will respond, Bailey says.

Also see: Here's how to send work emails that get the responses you need

Mistake 4: Copying everyone who might possibly be interested

Every email expert will tell you to think carefully about your "to," "CC," and "BCC" fields.

When entering names in your 'to' field, Harmon suggests asking yourself which recipients truly need to read your email. Career consultant Michelle Yeager agrees: "Everyone on the 'to' line should have a need to read the email's contents."

The CC field is usually the tricky one. Who really needs a copy of your email?

Many employees also feel psychological pressure to respond to every email or CC excessively because they fear offending colleagues. "Overuse of CC reflects a political culture in which people cover their tracks by overinclusion," Harmon writes.

Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain, says simply explaining to co-workers that, by not responding you are saving them time—can be very effective in these cases. Harmon adds that when you over-include recipients, you end up filling your own inbox, since "Reply All"s will ultimately come back to haunt you.

Mistake 5: Over-organizing your emails

While we've been taught to view tidiness as an indicator of professionalism and success, journalist and economist Tim Harford argues that disorder is actually the better strategy.

Many people use email folders to achieve the elusive state of "Inbox Zero"—we've collectively decided the gold standard of digital organization is an empty inbox. But while Harford says seeking "Inbox Zero" is fine, he argues that perfecting your email folder strategy can be counterproductive.

"It looks disorganized. It looks messy. But your desk is actually organizing itself," Harford says. When you leave the papers (or in this case, emails) untouched, the ones you're interacting with, reading, and replying to will naturally rise to the top, and the less important ones will fall to the bottom.

Related: 8 productive things to do during your final hour at work

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