May 12, 2018

My Inbox is For You

Don’t be “bad at email”

At the beginning of April, one of my business partners was away for a couple of weeks.

Her email vacation responder pointed people to my inbox, which gave me an opportunity to experience what email is like for everyone else. I’ve seen the tweets, glanced over at other peoples’ home screens to witness the red doom sausage of ten thousand unread emails, lost in time. It bewilders me.

Chris Coyier (you know him as the guy behind CSS-Tricks, or perhaps as co-founder of CodePen) recently started a blog about email, and a lot of it resonates with me.

From his latest post about people who say they’re terrible at email:

It downright scares me when I hear this from otherwise successful people. It’s straight up saying I’m unreliable” which is a truly bizarre thing to announce, even if it’s true…I quite literally don’t want to work with someone, in any capacity, who I can’t expect email responses from. It’s unreliable and unprofessional.

I’m beginning to understand how people end up in that situation though.

See, I don’t get a lot of email. No newsletters, no social updates, no unnecessary notifications.

I’ve worked very hard to make this the case, but it’s also a situation I’m able to create for myself because of the nature of the work that I do. But with my partner gone, more of our clients were emailing me, including some who treat email as an endless stream of one-sentence thoughts, requests, ideas, and statements.

Most of my day is spent communicating with my team and with a subset of our clients and vendors, but a lot of that happens outside of email. Unfortunately for my inbox, while we use Basecamp, not everyone else does.

Seeing how others treat email reinforces my own desire to be better at it. To be respectful of others’ time and inboxes. I like to think that I’m good at email, which is to say I keep track of what annoys me about how others do it and try to avoid those pitfalls in my own usage. A few guidelines I try to follow:

  • I answer promptly, even if just to say that it’ll take me more time to address the request fully
  • I keep it as brief as is practical (there are differing schools of thought on how brief is appropriate, but I think it depends on the situation, so I don’t adhere to an arbitrary limit)
  • The purpose of my email is always explicitly stated in the subject line
  • If I need something in response, I ask for it explicitly so people know exactly what I expect from them
  • I try to dedicate each email to one topic or area; for instance, if we’re working on two projects with a client and I have updates for them on both fronts, each one gets its own email. While this means more messages, it also makes it easier for everyone to find the thread later and maintain focus on the topic at hand

On the receiving end, I’m a very happy adherent to the inbox zero methodology. It made sense to me from the moment I discovered it, and it’s helped me turn my inbox into a place of action, rather than a source of stress.

My inbox is sacred. My inbox is for clients, for important updates, for friends.

My inbox is for you.

One of the unexpected side effects of bringing the blog back to Svbtle has been an increase in the number of readers sending me emails. I love it, and it’s amazing how diverse the conversations can be. People email me with questions, ideas, or just to say hello, and I’m delighted to have an inbox that lets me get to those messages and engage with them.

You miss out on a lot by being bad at email”. I have more sympathy now for those who find themselves in that situation, but I’m also more convinced than ever that it’s worth the effort to dig yourself out.

Be great at email, and email becomes a great thing again.

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