When email becomes a two-headed monster

Date: Thursday, November 12, 2009 by GTD Times Staff

2headedQ: I think email is becoming a two-headed monster. It is vital but more and more people ignore them, don’t read fully etc. How can we move forward with accomplishing goals in this environment? Are there ideas you can offer regarding effective corporate communications and task handoffs?

David Allen’s answer: Essentially email is no different than paper or verbal communications, with the same weaknesses if things are unfocused, unclear, and/or unnecessary. Because of its accessibility e-mail has just magnified those problems when those standards in communication are allowed. The key is having a culture and relationships that have established (really) the best-practice standards, such as communicating on purpose, while respectful of others’ time and attention. Then it’s a lot easier to ensure that happens within all the media, including e-mail. If you don’t have those standards, I’ll bet it’s not just email that has those problems.

More resources on GTD & email:

What standards have you, your team or your organization agreed upon to make email more effective and efficient?

9 Responses to “When email becomes a two-headed monster”

  1. Patricia says:

    A well-written subject line can help A LOT!

    I like subject lines that begin with “For your action:”, because I know that I am going to be required to do something. The rest of the subject line clearly states why I am being asked to perform the action. For example, “For your action: Yearly audit of computer resources.” So, now I know that I am going to be asked to go to our database that manages all of our computer resources and verify that the information in the database is accurate.

    One or two word subject lines are very annoying. For example, “Defect 1234”. What about Defect 1234? What do I have to do with it? What do you want from me?


  2. Bill Gray says:

    I’ve found that my emails get mostly read when I bullet main points (executive summary) at top followed by any commentary as necessary. I try to keep emails short (read in 2 minutes) so they don’t get “somedayed”.

  3. Todd Carney says:

    I’m a university professor and I insist students always put something meaningful in the subject field of their emails to me. In fact, I have a “rule” set up in my software that automatically responds to emails that don’t have subjects. The sender is asked to resend with a subject and they are told the original has been dumped in the trash folder. Now, not only do I not get subjectless messages from students, I don’t get them from colleagues or administrators, either.

    One more email victory: I also coaxed the department chair to send out a weekly “digest” email instead of nearly daily (or more often) messages on small and not-very-significant topics. If it’s not an urgent subject, it gets collected for the weekly digest email. Hurrah!

  4. Sometimes I think it is the internet in general that makes us so scatterbrain and unfocused. But certainly if we learn to better apply our attention then there is no reason why we can’t have lucid e-mailing.

  5. Peter Juhl says:

    As with all things we must look at ourselves and do whats right.

    Telling subject lines.
    Clearly stated request for action.
    Very few on CC:

    And remember the natural law that says, “though shall receive more than one email per email that though send out”. So send less.


  6. Trinny says:

    I agree that clear subject line is important. I often change the subject line myself before archiving or sending back e-mails so it becomes clearer what the e-mail is about.

  7. Bob says:

    There is a thin book called “The Hamster Revolution” that has a very good compilation of ideas and suggestions for taming email. No silver bullets really, but a comprehensive set of do’s and don’t’s that are a good reminder for the converted and an eye opener for the unconscious.

  8. Chris says:

    The important point is – train your colleagues to use meaningful subject lines and to have trust in mails send to you.
    I hate it when poeple send me an email and ask 5 minutes later “have you got my email” – my answer is “no, as you know, 85% of all emails get lost on their way.”. Teach then to trust you with email be replying or acting on every mail you get in a reasonable amount of time depending on the real urgency of the mail.

  9. Andy M says:

    Great article!
    I use a web based email client called Taroby http://www.taroby.com for handling all my email accounts. It allows you to manage emails a lot better in a team based environment.

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