The Rules of Email

Hand cradling representations of emails
by Zach Armstrong

In 2019, I wrote about productivity tools like to-do lists, time blocking, and the action/question rule. One item was “be awesome at email” and linked to a list from Google executive Eric Schmidt who had nine principles to follow for better emailing. Today, we’re diving into four of Eric’s principles.

It’s easy to be bad at emails in any number of ways, so, let’s look at four of the ways you can shine. For the full list, check out the email entry in my previous post Choose Your Own Productivity Adventure.

Respond quickly

Eric says: “There are people who can be relied upon to respond promptly to emails, and those who can’t. Strive to be one of the former. Most of the best—and busiest—people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone.”

Building trust with anyone you work with regularly is important, and quick responses are a great way to do that. Not only does it communicate to people that you’re on top of things, it keeps things moving for you and your whole team.

However, you’re likely not to get much work done if you’re always jumping on an email as soon as it hits your inbox. Set aside a few times throughout your day to get through your emails effectively!

Every word matters, and useless prose doesn’t

Eric says: “Be crisp in your delivery. If you are describing a problem, define it clearly. Doing this well requires more time, not less.”

If you rush through a task, errors are likely and will require fixing; and the further down the pipeline errors get, the more damage they do. Even with email, it is worth it to take your time to ensure you’re communicating clearly. What extra context do you need to ensure you are clearly understood? What specific parameters do you need in a response to allow you to continue your work?

Clean out your inbox constantly

Eric says: “How much time do you spend looking at your inbox, just trying to decide which email to answer next? How much time do you spend opening and reading emails that you have already read? Any time you spend thinking about which items in your inbox you should attack next is a waste of time. Same with any time you spend rereading a message that you have already read (and failed to act upon).”

Your time is precious! When you re-read an email you already read, you are taking time away from yourself by repeating the action. If you get through your inbox efficiently, you save yourself a lot of time overall, time you can spend making your other work better.

Answer emails in “LIFO” order: Last In First Out

Eric says: “Sometimes the older stuff gets taken care of by someone else.”

When tackling your email, this process is your most efficient, and if you’re staying on top of your inbox even important emails won’t wait very long for you to address them (and if someone has an extremely time-sensitive, high-importance request, hopefully your phone is ringing instead).

Additionally, if you commit to Last In First Out, you don’t waste time trying to decide how to tackle your email because you already have a process! This saves you time, for both crafting more intelligent emails that get the job done—and doing the core of your job itself.