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Time Management

Regaining Command of Email

By Paul H. Burton

Email is the global de facto communication standard. Business use of email continues to grow. Email is also a hybrid form of communication — a written form used conversationally. This hybrid nature, coupled with habits developed early in its use, results in email being both the boon and the bane of the modern work world. It is the boon because we can communicate globally, 24 hours a day. It is the bane because everyone else can too!

Consider these suggestions to make email part of a more productive day.

1. Turn New Message Alerts Off

New message alerts were valuable when email was new. We only received five emails per day back then and needed to be alerted to their arrival.

Times have changed. Now, we receive five messages per minute. The new message alert serves only to distract us from other productive efforts, resulting in time lost getting back up to speed when we return to our work.

2. Check Email Regularly Versus Constantly

Staying responsive to others while getting work done is a difficult balance. Regularly checking email versus constantly checking email is one way to achieve this balance. Staying focused on one thing — even for a short period of time — produces higher quality work faster. That’s a positive result.

The frequency of inbox visits varies from day to day depending on other demands. However, a good rule of thumb is every 15 minutes. That allows focused efforts and responsiveness to cohabitate.

3. Craft Single-Subject Emails

As a hybrid communication method, email has incorporated many conversational nuances. Not all of them are good or productive. One bad habit is switching topics mid-message. This is a normal conversational behavior, but it doesn’t translate well to email.

Consider how physical letters were crafted: one subject in each letter. The reasons were simple. Not only did it focus the writer and reader on one subject (more effective), it was easier to file and to find. These goals — effectiveness and ease of use — also pertain to emails. Thus, only discuss one subject in each email. If a new subject needs to be communicated to the same person, start a new email.

4. Leverage the Subject Line

Another bad email habit is the failure to craft good subject lines. The subject line is one of the few pieces of information every email recipient sees. Yet, most subject lines are only marginally communicative. Here are some examples of good and bad subject lines:

Bad Subject Lines:

  • Question
  • Meeting Tomorrow
  • Need Information

Good Subject Lines:

  • Question—Thompson Matter—Deadline=End of Business Today
  • Meeting Tomorrow—Smith Matter—2 p.m. Eastern—Conf Rm 12 North
  • Need Information—Robertson Deal—Deadline=Tuesday at Noon Eastern

The bad subject line emails tell the reader little, requiring the email to be opened and read before any meaningful action occurs. That’s a waste of time. The good subject line emails tell the recipient what they need to know without ever opening the message. They’re more effective and more efficient. Moreover, it is much easier to find and file the good subject line emails.

5. No Radio Silence

We have a strange relationship with email. We send and receive hundreds of email each day. We work hard to stay on top of our work, and occasionally, we fail to keep others informed about our progress. This is a bad habit because no news is always bad news to the person expecting to hear from us!

Make a habit of updating those with whom you work on a regular basis regarding your progress on the projects at hand. One good rule of thumb is to do these update emails at the end of each day as a way to button up that day before going home.

6. Reduce Use of Reply All

Reply all is often required to keep everyone in the loop and to document effort properly. However, it’s not always required. One study found that people overuse it about 20 percent of the time. If we all get 100 emails a day (a low estimate) and we all reduce our use of reply all by 20 percent, we’d all have 20 fewer emails per day that we didn’t need to open, read and delete. How many minutes would that save?

All it takes is making one consideration: Does everyone on this email thread need my response?

Decide if any of the above suggestions make sense. If so, implement them and start getting back those precious minutes every day!

Illustration ©

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Categories: Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Lawyer Productivity, Lawyer Time Management
Originally published August 14, 2017
Last updated April 18, 2018
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Paul H. Burton

Paul Burton is a former corporate finance attorney and General Counsel who helps lawyers and legal professionals make the best use of their time. The author of eight guides on individual and leadership productivity, he delivers seminars and coaching services to busy professionals across the United States. You can learn more about Paul and his practice at

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