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Stever Robbins on email overload

HBS Working Knowledge: The Leadership Workshop: Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload

Great article on dealing with a high volume of email that focuses on what you can do to craft email messages that are easy to process, read, and answer. So full of goodness, I’m not sure what to highlight, so I’ll just quote a tip for beating back one of my pet peeves, the wishy washy project update:

Make action requests clear.

If you want things to get done, say so. Clearly. There’s nothing more frustrating as a reader than getting copied on an e-mail and finding out three weeks later that someone expected you to pick up the project and run with it. Summarize action items at the end of a message so everyone can read them at one glance.

When I manage a project and send this sort of email, I frequently start with a set of open and recently closed items as well as when they’re due (if we know) and by whom:

[ ] Ralph - 2005-04-01 - Build ramp near chicken stand
[x] Potsie - 2005-03-01 - Find out where Arnold’s chicken stand will go
[ ] Fonz - Get bike tuned up
(x) Pinky - Sent lucky scarf as requested

(more on my little codes here)

Anyhow, Stever’s article has super advice throughout, and, if I may say, it’s a nice companion to the recent email articles posted here:

(via injoke.org, BoingBoing, and many others)

dan hartung's picture

Summarize action items at the...

Summarize action items at the end of a message so everyone can read them at one glance.

Oh. Oh dear, no. Unfortunately, as much as I still lo these years on feel a twinge of wrongness on top-posting, this is one thing we can't change. E-mail doesn't get read until the end. People skim, look for keywords and their name, and bang on. Well, not all people, but we're talking about people with e-mail overload here.

Here's something where AP style comes into play. From top to bottom, the most important things start at the top and the more detail goes at the bottom. If it's unimportant put it at the very end so people can ignore it or cut it off. If you need to summarize or expect something, PUT IT AT THE TOP. If there's any polite social niceties to observe, use them to leaven your bluntness, but don't try to disguise it.


I need you to take the lead on this problem. I know you're busy with the Whickerman project, but you're the in-house expert on Arbus, so could you make sure that Jonesy is up to speed and pointed in the right direction?




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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