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Inbox Zero: Five sneaky email cheats

This post is part of the Inbox Zero series.

In the words of the great Lucas Jackson: "Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand."

The template

I'll bet that eighty percent of your email involves sending or responding to the same 5-10 basic messages over and over. Think of all the times you've groaned, and thought "Ugh. Again?" Yeah, those.

For the love of God, acquire and use a program that will let you use templates. Try MailTemplate for Mail.app and Entourage or the built-in templates in Thunderbird. Either makes it easy to start a new email or a response based on an existing boilerplate document.

Use the shit out of these for:

  • Basic "thank you" responses
  • Responses to frequently asked questions
  • Responses to administrative information requests

Best use ever? Flame responses. I refuse to spend time thinking about stupid people, so I've manicured a handful of very reasonable responses to the insane, troll-y questions I get over and over from the sad dungeon masters of America's many parents' basements.

It's more attention than some folks deserve, but I do like to be polite when I can. Automated politeness requiring a single click is awesome.

The link

I get a lot of requests from readers that -- God bless you, kids -- is right there, above the fold, on the first set of returns on Google.

In combination with a templated wrapper, "Here's a link that might be what you're looking for..." is a great and super-fast (non-prose) response.

The question

I'm not proud of this one, but I do use it. If I've sat on an email for a long time, I sometimes get the ball back in motion with a very low-threshold question to the sender.

Honestly? Asking "Do you still need this?" might be the most time-saving question you've ever asked.

The "I don't know"

If you don't have an answer for something, please just say so. Definitely don't do the opposite -- tap-dancing gamely for three screens to try and seem smart.

"I have absolutely no idea" is a valid answer and gives the sender exactly the information needed to keep looking; "I don't know -- but here's three people who might" is even better and might make you the big hero.

The delete key

Seriously: is this an email you are ever going to respond to? If it's more than a week or two old, either answer it or delete it now.

If this strikes you as unsatisfactory or feels "mean and icky," then ask yourself why, precisely, you're still staring at this message instead of responding to it. Under what conditions, in your mind, will this email magically become more "answerable?"

So why, then, can't you summon that needed answerability right now and just get the hell rid of it? Yes, exactly.

Delete it, move on, and don't look back. See also: Inbox Zero: Delete, delete, delete (or, “Fail faster”)

TOPICS: Email, Tricks

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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