STOP! 10 Work Email Mistakes You May Be Making


As an online editor and writer who works with many other editors, writers, and all the people in between, I get a lot of email. Like, a lot. As a result, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to make the most of email, how to be efficient at it, and how to ensure that it benefits my work. I'm not the only one. (See also: Get the Response You Want With a Friendly, Professional Email)

According to market research company Radicati, the average American worker received or sent 115 emails per day in 2013, a staggering figure that's expected to rise to 136 emails by 2017.

That's a lot of opportunity to make a mistake. So before you rattle off today's 100+ emails, check out this collection of the 10 worst email mistakes you may be making.

1. You're a Slave to Your Inbox

Research by Mckinsey suggests that we spend more than a quarter of our work hours answering email. I actually think there's a simple reason for that: It can provide instant gratification. When you're flailing away at a tough presentation or hammering out figures in a boring spreadsheet, a new email can feel like a bit of a godsend. Aha! Something I can actually succeed at with only a few seconds of work!

Of course, when we get this attached to email, we end up doing a lot less actual work over all. What to do? According to Alexendra Samuel, an expert on email time management, it's best to create an "email budget" by devoting a specific portion of each day to email. Try answering your email only once or twice per day. What you want to avoid is becoming a slave to everything that drops into your inbox.

2. You Aren't Thinking About Efficiency

Email is a great way of communicating with people, whether you work in the same building or are miles away. However, if you have a close working relationship with someone that tends to require a lot of back-and-forth communication, it's best to have a strategy. And that strategy should not be to email your co-worker every time you think of an idea, have a question, or need a hand. This is especially true if the co-worker you are talking about is your supervisor or your boss. Instead of rapid-firing emails to the same person all day, consider composing one email at the end of each day that includes everything you'd like to say, then following up in person or on the phone to discuss each point. The key is to find a way to make email communication as effective as possible.

3. You Don't Always Bother to Respond

I know I'm not the only one who gets overwhelmed by my inbox, but responding to an email takes almost no time at all, and it can make a huge difference.

  • Did you get my invoice?
  • Is the deadline I proposed OK?
  • Did you review my work?

I don't know because you never responded. Sound familiar? Email does get lost, and people like to know that you've received their messages, even if there isn't much to say about them. A simple "thanks" or "OK" is often all it takes to ensure the sender feels heard. It'll also mean that sender won't have to contact you again just to make sure he or she got through the first time, which means one less email you'll have to deal with.

4. But When You Do Respond, You Respond to Everyone

"Reply All" is a great tool… if you really want that message to go to all the initial recipients of an email. Remember, everyone else on the list probably gets too much email too, so before you hit that button, think about which people actually need to be in the loop. And do not "Reply All" and then address one person — you're just wasting everyone else's time.

5. You Expect Instant Feedback

Just because someone is online all day doesn't mean they're staring at their email queue. Email can be instant, but that doesn't mean it has to be. Give people a chance to respond to your messages in their own time (as long as it's reasonable in the professional context). That's what email is for.

6. You Start Messaging Before You've Finished Reading

If you have a ton of email, be careful about starting at the top and firing off a bunch of responses. This is especially important if you've been out of the office. While you were away, chances are that people found a way to get their questions answered or problems dealt with without your help. Make sure you know the full story and have seen everything they've sent you before you start sending replies that are no longer needed.

7. You Aren't Careful About What You Say (And How You Say It)

When you speak to someone in person, you can say all kinds of things that just won't translate in an email. You can smile and roll your eyes to show that you're being sarcastic; you can behave kindly when you deliver harsh criticism; you can make jokes and ensure that your humor hasn't missed the mark. In text, this is very very tricky.

That means that you have to be very careful what you say in an email — and how you say it, especially when what you're saying is or could be interpreted as criticism. If you have to discuss something sensitive by email, read over what you've written very carefully to ensure it strikes the right tone. If you aren't sure that it does, that's a conversation to have in person. Although many people will tell you it's unprofessional, I'm also a fan of using a few emoticons in work emails, particularly smiley faces. I think it helps make it clear that I'm trying to be friendly, rather than abrupt and confrontational.

8. You Forward Forwards

Forwarding email was a big thing back in the day when email was just something people played around with and used for social correspondence. Now, email is used for everything from basic communication to a means for conducting major business deals. In other words, there isn't much room for junk anymore. If you have something awesome to forward, forward it to the people who will appreciate it. But please, please, please do not indiscriminately forward every joke and cat video that comes through your inbox.


9. You Turn the Gossip Mill

Whether you'd like to think about it or not, if you have a work email address, it probably goes through your employer's server. In other words, any email that you send from that account is not your email — it's your employer's email. And that means that your employer can read those messages.

If you feel the need to rant about how horrible your boss is, or how lazy the receptionist is, or about how you haven't been working all day because you're hung over, email is not the place to do it. Your boss might just get to read that email someday. Whether that happens while you're still working for the company or after you've moved on, it could have a major impact on the kind of reference you're able to get for that job.

10 You Write Lame Subject Lines

If I have too much email to tackle in one day, I try to scan through it and answer the messages that are the most pressing. It's a pretty good time management strategy, but the people sending me email kind of have to play along by providing some indication of the timeliness and importance of their messages. And that means being specific. For example, an email titled "Question about article due tomorrow" tells me I need to get to work immediately and find out what I can do to help. An email titled "Question" tells me next to nothing and is more likely to be overlooked. If you want timely and helpful responses to your email messages, be a good sender by giving your email an accurate subject line.

Email is simple. It's convenient. It's fast. But it can also leave you totally unproductive and, if you send the wrong kind of email, possibly even unemployed. Whether you tend to send more email than you receive or vice versa, the responsibility for efficient, effective email belongs to both parties. Here's to hoping we can all help each other email a little better — and by that I mean a whole lot less.

What's the worst email mistake you've ever committed (or read)? Please share in comments!

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