Email is not your job. Repeat: email is not your job. Too many of us spend our days slaving over our inboxes, while our real jobs get neglected and we sacrifice the opportunity to be truly productive. But there is a solution, and it starts not with the message itself but with the subject line. By keeping your email subject lines short, focused and consistently structured, both you and your recipient can identify which emails warrant which action. And that means you both spend less time battling with your inbox and free up more precious time to get on with what you’re really paid to do. Embrace a culture of email efficiency in your workplace with these three tips for more productive email subject lines.
If someone sends you an email that’s headed simply with the word “report”, how are you meant to know what they want from you? Do they need you to write a new report, proofread one they’ve already written, or print a report for them? You inevitably start reading the email without the first idea of what it is you’re being asked to do.
In an ideal situation, when you receive a new email you want to know in an instant – just from the subject line – what the message is about. And that is something you should make possible for recipients of your own emails too. So structure your subject line using keywords – for instance, change that “Report” to “Sales Report for February 2015”. Better still, give your colleague all they need to know at a glance – “Draft Sales Report for February 2015 by Monday, 1pm” – so that the body of the message is preserved for you to get down to details as succinctly as possible.
Another simple way to help your recipient understand at a glance what you need from them – and to make it easier for them to categorize their incoming emails, too – is to specify right in the subject line what type of message it is that you are sending them. Emails come in all shapes and sizes, and by placing a prefix before or a suffix after your main subject line, you’ll get quicker results.
For instance, if your email needs a definitive response from the recipient, start it with “ACTION:” followed by the subject. An example would be “ACTION: Draft Sales Report for February 2015 by Monday, 1pm”. If, on the other hand, you are simply dropping your colleagues a quick notification that the printer is out of order, you can use one or both of “FYI” (for your information) and “NRN” (no reply needed). For example: “FYI: Printer out of order until further notice” or “NRN: Printer out of order until further notice.”
You can take this one stop further. If you can get your entire message across in the subject line alone, then that’s exactly what you should aim to do. That way, your colleague can read the subject line, add the task to their to-do list and delete it straight out of their inbox. To quickly signal that there’s nothing in the email body, you can suffix your subject line with “EOM” (end of message) – for example, “FYI: Printer out of order until further notice. EOM”.
These tricks will only help you beat a never-ending inbox if they’re adopted and applied consistently across your organization. Make them a part of your company’s basic IT training, and encourage your staff to use them in their own work and to pull up others who fall back into bad habits. They may be skeptical at first, but they’ll soon jump on the bandwagon once they start to realize how much less time they spend managing their email account!
Think too about introducing standardized formats for subjects of emails you and your teams send on a recurring basis. For example, if you regularly send reports around for review, prefix your subject line with “Report for Review:”, followed by the topic of the report. Or if your employees send you a weekly update on their workstreams, have them title it “Weekly Update:” followed by the date. That way, you can set up filters in your inbox and have those emails smartly stored in one place, ready for you to look through when the time is right, rather than clogging up your inbox and making it look like you have more urgent tasks to complete than you actually do.
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