Email is supposed to be simple, and in some ways it is. The problem isn’t really about complexity, it’s volume. When we’re hit with tens or even hundreds of emails every day, it can be a time-consuming challenge just sorting through everything. Lower-value messages that don’t need your immediate attention get mixed in with those few messages that are truly important and need a response right now.
So while many of us focus on how to prioritize the emails we receive, we tend to miss how we can help others prioritize the messages we send–upping our own odds of getting the types of responses we need, when we need them. These two incredibly simple techniques can help do just that. If you can count to three, you’re already halfway there.
This first techinique helps you give recipients a simple, visual way to scan their inboxes and know what you’re asking of them before they even read your note. Simply numbering your subject lines with a “1,” “2,” or “3” lets your contacts know which messages need their immediate attention, which need action, and which are merely for their information.
“I get emails from my team and I don’t know if they need me to do something,” one of my coaching clients recently told me, “or if they are just keeping me in the loop.” Getting emails with no clear direction is a common problem: Is this message just an FYI or something you need to take action on–and if so, how urgently?
The “1-2-3” subject-line approach works like this:
- This is a time-sensitive and important email that you need to take action on right away.
- You have to take some kind of action, but it isn’t an urgent or hugely important matter. Handle it in a reasonable time frame, but don’t drop everything.
- No action is required on your part; just scan this email for useful information when it’s convenient.
In order to be effective, though, the number should be the very first thing in the subject line. Here’s how this looks in practice:
2: Notes from call w/ Franklin 2/5/15
This tells the recipient they need to take action on the email, then lets them know what it concerns. You can use this approach for emails to multiple people, too:
2 Mark; 3 Sarah: Two items still needed on the Sullivan project
This tells Mark he needs to take action and Sarah that this is just an FYI for her.
Now you and your team can quickly scan through your inbox faster and with less mental energy. This is especially helpful when you’re out of the office and checking email on your smartphone. It allows you to ignore the 2s and 3s until you’re back in the office, but to open and deal with any 1s right away.
Just make sure you clarify what a “1” really is with your team. At my company, we expect that under normal circumstances someone might send out one or two emails in an entire week that are marked as a 1. You don’t want to abuse it, otherwise it will lose its sense of real urgency.
As an added bonus, this technique frees email senders from having to craft the most stellar subject lines ever while they’re under pressure at work. With the addition of a simple number, even a less-than-ideal subject line like “Notes from call w/ Franklin” has a clear purpose.
When you write an email about something that’s rather involved, should you go wide (multiple emails, each with only one item) or deep (one thorough email with multiple items)?
The answer usually depends on the situation, but “going deep” often forces people to sift through lots of information and (probably) only absorb some of it. Instead of writing long, comprehensive emails with big paragraphs of information, just break everything down into lists. You can even do this for relatively short notes, making them more digestible:
Here is the update plus a few questions for you.
1. Got the Segmented Packing quote back: $34 unit cost.
2. Still waiting on Gamble’s price quote (will follow up Friday).
1. What is the highest price we can go to?
2. What matters more to you: saving 10% or less, or highest reliability? (Asking because it’s likely that Gamble’s quote will be 8%–10% higher, but they have a much better track record of on-time delivery.)
See how visually numbering your items in a quick list format makes it easier for the reader to understand your priorities? Imagine the same information all in one long block of text–now it’s up to Mark to sort out what’s needed of him. Here, you spell it out point by point, with minimal text. This means that your recipient is much more likely to hit “reply” and get you the information you need right away.
There’s a long-term benefit to this technique, too: Two months from now, if you need to refer back to a key item, you’ll have a much easier time finding what you’re looking for when you scan the emails in your “sent” folder.
David Finkel is coauthor with Priceline.com cofounder Jeff Hoffman of the best-selling SCALE: 7 Proven Principles to Grow Your Business and Get Your Life Back.