How easy it is to feel smug, you’re up and running with GTD®. You’re completing a Weekly Review®, your ‘ins’ are at zero, your lists are in order, higher horizons aligned and you’re looking through your ‘waiting for’ list to see who you can chase to prove your system is superior to theirs; those ‘silly non-GTDers’, with their overflowing inboxes, cluttered minds and broken promises.
Well, I’ve got news for you, it could be your fault they haven’t replied!
When I was new to running GTD seminars and building up my network of people to sell these to, I was horrified to realise that my ideal clients were the hardest people to ever get a response from by email – because they were drowning in their workflow and feeling overwhelmed to the point of catatonia. I had to make it easy for them to respond to me, ideally easier to respond to me than to anyone else, so my email would be one not to slip down their inbox into the abyss.
Improving the way you send your own emails will reduce the time you have to wait for email responses and maybe even increase the quality of the emails you get back.
Don’t beat other people up with your GTD system. Use it to support them. Be kind.
Here are a few tips:
Good subject lines
We GTD folk know that we need to clarify the meaning of each new email soon after it arrives in our inbox. The person you are writing to may not. Use the ‘subject line’ to help them: include the answers to the GTD Clarifying questions “what is this email?” and “what is the next action (for them)?”.
If there is an urgency for a response, put the important date in the subject line and avoid using the work ‘urgent’. I prefer ‘Timely’ or ‘Today’ instead – help to keep the other person’s emotional reaction under control!
Don’t mark emails as urgent either with the little Outlook symbol, it may be urgent to you, but not necessarily to the other person.
One email per topic (or one topic per email)
Often people could easily answer one or two of the points in your email straight away, but they delay responding at all because there is another point that is hard to answer, or they don’t have the information yet. This email then sits in their inbox and gets slowly buried. Putting just one topic in an email helps the receiver be clear what they have to do and to answer you on easy topics quickly, giving them some easy wins and helping you to get speedy answers. Any emails they can’t answer they can delay and hopefully reply later.
Some people resist using this idea because they think of email as a ‘numbers game’. They don’t want to send someone more emails than necessary because the person is already swamped. Trust me and try it out: four easy to answer, quick win emails are better to receive than one monster-mail!
Don’t get into email “Ping-pong”
Responding to the latest emails as soon they arrive will encourage the person who has just sent the email to also respond quickly and you will be dragged into a game of email ping-pong. Clarifying your newly arrived emails in punctuated time slots and then working off your lists of next actions, means you can reply when it suits you. It’s a little bit like working early in the morning before everyone else is at work: you get lots done because you are not interrupted with replies!
Send emails during your own office hours
I confess that I read emails on the weekends and holidays. I try not to respond however other than to family and friends and sending occasional course-correcting work emails. If I do need to reply then I tend to do so ‘differently’ to normal: I’ll phone someone or send a text, to show it isn’t ‘business as usual’.
The same is true for evenings. Have a time when the ‘office’ shuts. This will stop you getting into more email ping-pong with caffeine fuelled colleagues.
If I do write emails in the evening or at weekends, I often use the delay send in Outlook and select a time to send it, like 8am the next working day.
CC and BCC
Being able to ‘Carbon Copy’ people into conversations is one of the wonderful parts of email – but it is overused.
If I am copying a new person into a conversation thread, I will normally note at the bottom of the email why I have added them, to explain to the current group but also to the newly copied person my thought process.
If you receive an email where you are in copy and you don’t know why, reply to the sender and ask; don’t just wonder and leave the email in your inbox unclarified.
Sometimes you only need to respond to the sender or a few people on the email chain, don’t always automatically reply all if half the people don’t need to see your reply – it is a waste of their time.
However, also watch out for sending a reply to just the sender, which they then will need to share with the people you missed off their CC list, making more work for them.
Blind Carbon Copying (BCC) is frowned upon by most. Some people like to use it but be careful if you are sent as a BCC not to reply to the email chain as it shows up the original sender as someone who uses this ‘secret’ method.
My main use of BCC is to send myself the email to track as a waiting for once it arrives back in my inbox. Any emails ‘from me’ in my inbox are swiftly turned into a waiting for item to track.
Some people I coach have set up a CC rule in Outlook and so any email to which they have been copied and not actually sent in the ‘to’ line, go into a separate folder which they only check once at the end of the day. They inform colleagues of this system and that if someone wants their attention on something sooner, the email has to be ‘to’ them.
Proofread your emails
Check your emails by re-reading them before you hit send.
Avoid any speeling mistakks – grammar and spelling still matter!
Send short emails
Simple and to the point. (Do you see what I did there?!?!?)