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Deep Habits: Write Your Own E-mail Protocols

July 8th, 2015 · 28 comments

The Curse of Process Inefficiency

A couple weeks ago, I posted some ideas about why we have such a love/hate relationship with e-mail. In this post, I want to return to the conversation with a thought on how we might improve matters.

I argue that a major problem with our current e-mail habits is interaction inefficiency.

In more detail, most e-mail threads are initiated with a specific goal in mind. For example, here are the goals associated with the last three e-mails I sent today before my work shutdown:

  • Getting advice from my agent on a publishing question.
  • Moving a meeting to deal with a scheduling conflict.
  • Agreeing on the next steps of a project I’m working on with Scott Young.

If you study the transcripts of most e-mail threads, the back and forth messaging will reveal a highly inefficient process for accomplishing the thread’s goal.

There’s a simple explanation for this reality. When most people (myself included) check e-mail, we’re often optimizing the wrong metric: the speed with which you clear messages.

Boosting this metric feels good in the moment — as if you’re really accomplishing something — but the side effect is ambiguous and minimally useful message that cause the threads to persist much longer than necessary, devouring your time and attention along the way.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. For example, look at this terrible reply to a meeting request that I actually sent not long ago:

I’m definitely game to catch up this week.

Ugh. As I sent the above I knew that in the interest of replying as quickly as possible, I probably tripled the number of messages required before this meeting came to fruition.

E-mail Protocols

What’s the solution?

Here’s a tactic that I’ve sporadically toyed with and that seems to work well: when starting or first replying to an e-mail thread, include in your message a “protocol” which identifies the goal of the thread and outlines an efficient process for accomplishing the goal (where “efficient” usually means a process that minimizes the total number of e-mails sent).

Consider, for example, the following improved version of my above response:

I’m definitely game to catch up this week. See below…

—–

Here are three time and date combinations that work for me to talk this week. If any of these three work for you, choose one: I’ll consider your reply a confirmation of the call. You can reach me then at <number>.

If none of these work, reply with a few combinations that do work, and I’ll choose one.

Option #1: <date and time>

Option #2: <date and time>

Option #3: <date and time>

Notice the format of this message. It opens with the normal informal tone that people expect from e-mail, and then segregates the more systematic protocol portion under a dividing line. In this case, the sample protocol is designed to reduce the thread to two e-mail messages if at all possible.

Pros and Cons

The hard part about this strategy is that it takes a little more time to craft each of your messages. It returns, however, two important benefits…

The first benefit is obvious: a well-designed protocol will reduce the number of e-mails you send and receive, and therefore reduce the overall time you spend tending your inbox (even if the messages you do send take slightly longer to write).

The second benefit is less obvious in the abstract but clear in practice: you feel less stress. When you fire off a quick and ambiguous e-mail, your mind knows the related project is still open, and therefore it will reserve some mental space to keep worrying about it.

If you instead identify the relevant goal and lay out a clear process for accomplishing it, your mind believes things are handled, and it’s more willing to let it go.

I know it sounds weird, but it’s true: including protocols in your e-mail, though somewhat clunky and artificial, really does reduce the grip your inbox has on your mood and attention.

I don’t use this strategy nearly as much as I should, but whenever I do, it works wonders for me. If your inbox is frustrating you, it’s worth experimenting with. I’ll be interested to hear about your experience.

28 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Write Your Own E-mail Protocols

  1. As an extension to what you said above you can use text expansion software to make writing these emails much faster, the static text is saved within the software memory you then type a keyword e.g.”\3datemeetemail”, the text is inserted and then you can select dates to add to the later portion. The software I personally use is phrasexpress.

  2. Dave Small says:

    Good advice Cal. If we’re going to write an e-mail — we should take the time to write it well and avoid ambiguity. The additional time poorly crafted e-mails consume isn’t worth the satisfaction of momentarily clearing the inbox.

    A couple of additional thoughts:

    1. In a business e-mail, I don’t think the “normal informal tone that people expect from e-mail” should be accommodated. I would drop it.

    2. I understand the purpose of your sample e-mail is to illustrate “interaction inefficiency”, but it still could have been more concise.

    Thanks again for the great blog!

  3. Aninl says:

    Perfect advice for the email. You can perhaps, add one more pro (benefit):
    – Clarity in our thoughts and instructions. When we are clear and specific in our emails, we could also implement it in our actual writing and speaking.

    Thanks.

  4. Alex Chen says:

    Agree wholeheartedly, and have sought tools to accommodate this. Two in particular come to mind to facilitate this on mobile devices, Outlook and Sunrise. Notably, both are owned by Microsoft now.

    Outlook in particular has a fantastic scheduling functionality that auto-creates an email like yours above when you select your times from your calendar, and then auto-populates an event invite when the recipient chooses a time slot.

    Perhaps this can be part of your lexicon as Deliberate Email.

    1. Austin says:

      How do you select multiple time slots and send an invite using Outlook? I have Outlook 2010 and have never heard of this ability.

  5. Chung Chin says:

    I do agree that having this type of reply reduces the number of back and forth. I continuously uses this method although I see it as the “mindful-solution-focused” reply. The reason I see it that way is because:
    1. As mentioned by you, it takes time to craft this type of reply. I need to think, and be mindful of whether, for example, I’m indeed available to meet next week.
    A flippant “Yea dude, let’s meet next week / Next week sounds awesome!” will end up exactly as you said – leaving things hanging and open.
    2. Solution-focused because I actually make an active decision to suggest specific options to meet (morning, 1030AM or evening, 7:30PM – fine with both but prefer morning) While it takes work on my side, but I think it helps relieve the burden of thinking for the other person. I think this is especially important if I’m scheduling to meet with someone I have been wanting to meet.

    And like you, I’ll specifically request for the other person to make suggestions if all of mine does not meet any of his want. All in all, I have noticed that such replies tend to resolve any open ended agreement pretty fast.

  6. Jitesh says:

    Nice to see that I am the guy who need to implement this suggestion !
    Thanks for the Good Posts.

  7. Sue says:

    I would say this is more about efficient communication, not just emails. As a PA I got used to filling in black holes left by Directors. So I would always appoint one person to take on an action point (even if they then passed it on to someone else!) rather than leaving it in no mans land, I would state options (of dates, or actions etc) and would give a due by date. And if it’s to do with meetings, then having the aim of the meeting stated up front which helps people to know whether it is worth coming to, how long it is likely to take and what sort of priority they should give it.
    I so enjoy your gems Cal.

  8. Robert Currie says:

    Sometimes, too, the right move is to just pick up the phone and dial.

    Texting is also useful (I’m 63, and I’ve managed to come to that conclusion). No idea what the time-waste coefficient is for texting.

    On the other hand, one of the nice things about email is that there is a record of the interaction. Phone, not really. Texting, don’t tend to keep the threads. Although, I’ve discovered that if I’m texting with my phone, and delete texts, back on my laptop if I open Apple messages, I’ve got records.

  9. Robert Currie says:

    BTW

    The book you commend, “You Are Not a Gadget,” seems (after about 60 seconds of Amazon “Look Inside” browsing) to be connected to the distinction between decidable and undecidable tasks that you’ve written about in conjunction with Alan Turing’s paper.

    Thank you, Cal, for that one, too.

  10. John says:

    Hi Cal,

    Today I came across a book that encapsulates what is wrong with how we think about finding meaningful work. I call this book the anti-So Good They Can’t ignore you, because it sells you on the idea that with a few tips and tricks you can solve your career problems. The book is called LinkedIn makeover: Professional secrets to a powerful LinkedIn profile.

  11. Sara says:

    I use this method a lot and it saves a ton of time. I can’t stand getting emails that vaguely suggest “we should catch up sometime soon.” If I want to see you, I’ll send a list of dates and times.

    I do still send “Yeah, we should!” responses now and then. But only for the appointments I don’t actually want to take.

  12. Elaine says:

    I do this so routinely now that this almost seems like a “d’uh” insight but I still remember the light bulb moment when I realized that any email should make it as easy as possible to get the result I wanted from the other person(s). Same goes for all sorts of communications, i.e. clarify my own intentions and then set up conditions for success – or at least an efficient next step. A similar example: when asking for feedback, be very clear about the type of feedback sought and by when.

  13. Lisia says:

    I’ve been caught out a few times writing the type of email you suggest: the recipient has been slow to get back to me and it’s become inconvenient keeping three timeslots open as other commitments arise. I’m not sure what the solution is … maybe to state in the email, ‘I can keep all of these times open until tomorrow; please let me know by tomorrow if one of them works for you.’

  14. Bill Wear says:

    Yep. Two minutes of mental flowcharting always yield ten minutes saved. I’ll take an 80% reduction in distraction any day.

  15. Daniel says:

    in my job (I’m an attorney) I deal with this all the time. there’s an email tool called mixmax (mixmax.com) that has really helped me. it integrates seamlessly with Gmail and my google calendar so I can send my availability just like you sketched out. When the recipient clicks on one of my available time slots the meeting is automatically entered into both of our calendars.

  16. Agree with Declan about using text expanders to speed up your use of such “protocols”. That can also help them seem less clunky (if you personalize them to your style in advance).

    Speaking of this particular protocol for meeting scheduling. Alex mentioned a few tools above. For Gmail users, I absolutely love using Boomerang Calendar ( boomerangcalendar.baydin.com ). It logs you into your calendar, you pick your available times, and it creates the template for you (pretty much the same as yours, just without the last line about other combinations).

  17. John Ryan says:

    Hmm, I’ve always naturally done what you’re suggesting here. The only time I’d send an e-mail like “I’m definitely game to catch up this week.” is if I was trying to blow someone off. I get quite annoyed when I receive messages like that.

    I suspect you’re right about why people send them. It gets the e-mail off of their plate quickly, yet keeps the conversation open.

  18. Matt says:

    Thanks Cal for writing this great post on how to write effective emails. I will definitely keep this concept in mind not just in my email correspondence, but in my texts to friends and my work meetings as well.

    Keep up the thoughtful writing.

  19. Buz says:

    By responding with options or a well thought out plan you are also psychologically taking some control of the situation. “I’m definitely game to catch up this week.” as a sole response puts you back into a purely reactive mode and leaves everyone hanging as it is unclear who should act next.

  20. MattSk says:

    The web app I use to do this type of thing is called surnise (calendar.sunrise.am). It allows you to select times that work for you, creates a link from those, and allows your collaborator to select the time that works. When that happens, it autopopulates a meeting on your calendar. It literally has saved me hundreds of dead email exchanges when setting up meetings.

  21. Sally says:

    Hi Cal,
    I was reading the Sunday ritual post you had written back in 2007 and I wanted to know do you still have a version of Sunday ritual you follow with all the changes in your life since then?

  22. Joe says:

    Hey Cal,

    This reminds me about Tim Ferriss’s discussion of email usage in the Four Hour Work Week. If I remember correctly, he talk about the If then structure as the best for scheduling, like you’re using above.
    There were also other points on how to write your email in a way that allows the reader to interpret it in only one way (imagine you’re writing to a child) and stuff like that.
    I might need to go back to that book and take a look.

  23. Dan Dickson says:

    Fantastic thoughts about email – very helpful – maybe life changing for a knowledge worker. Thank you Cal!

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