Prioritizing email

Email remains the biggest communication method and the biggest time drain for employees and businesses. Yesterday, I realized that I had sent and/or received more than 100 messages. As a small business owner in one day that's astronomical. I also know that many messages are never opened which necessitates a follow up phone call that always seems to start with: "Did you get my email?"

There are a lot of methods you can use to help you sort, manage and prioritize email messages. But one of the easiest is to write a better subject line.

How many messages in your inbox have the subject line of "catching up"? Or maybe "follow up"?

Here's a method to help you write better subject lines that contain action messages. This will be great for them, but won't help you too much unless you can persuade your contacts to follow a similar informational message.

First, every message should have a tag on it that indicates the action step the message requires.

1. INFORMATIONAL ONLY. This is for messages where you are providing information someone wanted from you. Use this in cases where nothing else is expected of the receiver.

2. RESPONSE REQUESTED: Use this if you are sending something and would like to get some kind of feedback, but it is not a requirement that you do. Such as if you are sending information and would like to know that the receiver has it.

3. RESPONSE REQUIRED: This email contains something I need you to respond to. Sometimes questions or action items are buried so deep in a message that the receiver doesn't even see them (no, not everyone reads every word). This lets the receiver know that there is something they must answer in this message.

4. ACTION REQUIRED: Messages often contain to do items or meeting requests. In both Outlook and Entourage there are much better ways to handle these. However, a large number of people still use the email format as a way to schedule meetings or assign tasks. If you've ever missed a deadline because an action item was buried in an email you never read, you know what I mean.

Once you've got that introductory phrase established, try to write a little bit stronger subject line to follow.

Yesterday, for example, I received an email from a colleague who is involved in a non-profit group with me. She forwarded me an email from an online service. The subject line was just a forward and there was nothing else in the body of the email. This necessitated that I send her another email asking her why she send me that email in the first place. That's just extra data that neither of us needs. Instead, I would propose this. RESPONSE REQUESTED: Does this xxx notice affect us?

In another example: I sent an email yesterday that included information on several things. At the very end was a question, I needed an answer to. Probably the best course of action would be two emails: one would be INFORMATIONAL and one would be RESPONSE REQUIRED.

You and your workgroup will have to figure out the methods and terminology that work best for you but implementing the concept will be a huge step in helping make your mailbox work for you rather than being a slave to it.
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