Don't let sloppy emails ruin productivity

Is email taking up too much of your time? Carson Tate explains how to regain control

Don't let sloppy emails ruin productivity

Business Strategy



FWD: FWD: Re Bill 


The big event is approaching. Contract attached. 

(No subject) 

Wait a minute – what? These emails were just sent to me, and I have no idea what any of it means. To make matters even worse, these are just a few of the daily examples of friends and colleagues not using email effectively. And almost immediately upon arrival, they turn my inbox into a slovenly mess. 

In writing my book, Work Simply, I did a lot of work to understand how we are using email effectively – or not. I discovered that we’re all bogged down by the sheer volume of email. And it takes a lot of time for us to slough through that volume because these emails are unclear, ambiguous and flat-out sloppy. Discerning exactly what we need to know or do and determining if a response is needed requires a lot of our attention and focus. 

These sloppy emails waste your time. And they cost you hours each week. Which means they’re also costing you money. 

When you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of sloppy, thick, unclear mud in your inbox, how do you begin to clean up the mess – and then, how do prevent it from reoccurring? 

Automate your responses to unclear messages 
When you receive an email message that is unclear, vague or just causes you to say, “What?”, send a response asking for additional information or clarification. To do this quickly, use a text expander software app like FastFox for PCs or Text Expander for Mac. A text expander works in any program, including your email platform, and allows you to insert commonly used text with just a keyboard shortcut. No longer will you waste your precious time typing out a response – you can reply automatically within seconds. 

Craft more effective email messages 
Dramatically reduce the volume of emails you receive by crafting more effective messages that are understood upon opening and do not require multiple back-and-forth emails asking clarifying questions. To craft more effective emails, answer the following four key questions in every single email you send: who, why, what and how. 

Who? This breaks down into two sub-questions: “Who needs to respond to, take action on or make a decision about this information?” Put their name(s) on the ‘to’ line. “Who needs to know this information?” Put their name(s) on the ‘cc’ line. 

Why?Look back at the names on the ‘to’ and ‘cc’ lines. For each name, ask yourself, “Why is this person involved in the project? Why am I emailing them? Why do they need to know? Why does this information matter to them? Why does it matter to the broader organization?” Then think about what you know about those individuals – their interests, needs, backgrounds and communication styles. Make sure the tone, style and content of your email matches up – just as you would choose appropriate words, tone and body language if you were sitting across a table from them and discussing the topic in person. 

What?Ask yourself a series of ‘what’ questions to help shape the content of your email. “What is the purpose of the email? What are the main points to be communicated in this email? What are the key facts? What references or research data need to be included? What must everyone know?” Do not hit the send button until you have included every piece of detail required. 

How?Ask yourself, “How do I want recipients to respond?” Describe this explicitly in your email. If there’s a deadline, say so. If you want an email response, say that. If you need suggested dates for a meeting, names of possible project participants, a list of questions or key ideas to be considered or any other specific input, describe it. Never assume that people will understand what you want – tell them as straightforwardly as possible. 

Use the subject line to improve email response time 
Please, never let yourself hit the send button while the subject line of your email reads ‘RE:RE’ or ‘FWD:FWD,’ or some cryptic phrase that relates to a prior email message. Why? Because when you send an email like this, you’re sending a message into the world with an unclear purpose. Do not be part of creating the email pigsty we have come to expect and accept.  

The subject line of your email message is your topic sentence. It clearly states the topic of the email. A clear subject line is essential if you want to communicate effectively and improve both the quality and response time on the email messages you send. Make sure the subject lines on your email messages reflect the current topic, purpose or desired outcome. When you respond to an email you’ve received, change the subject line to make it current and clear.  

Consider using some of the following standard email subject lines: 

  • Action required – DATE 
  • FYI – 3rd paragraph client X mention 
  • Update: TOPIC 
  • Reply by – DATE 
  • NRN – No response needed 
  • EOM – End of message 

The last subject line above, EOM, is an especially powerful one. Here’s how it works: when you have a short, simple message to convey, type the entire email in the subject line of the email, and put EOM at the end. (For example, “Tuesday marketing meeting moved to 2 p.m. EOM.”) Now your recipient doesn’t have to open the email message, saving them precious minutes. 

It’s time to take back control and clean up the pigsty that’s disguising itself as your inbox. 


Carson Tate serves as a consultant and coach to executives at Fortune 500 companies, including AbbVie, Deloitte, EY, FedEx and Wells Fargo. The author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, her views have been included several publications, including Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Forbes, the Harvard Business Review blog, The New York Times, Working Mother and more. For more information, visit

Keep up with the latest news and events

Join our mailing list, it’s free!