7 email mistakes that waste your time—and everyone else’s

Daily Briefing

7 email mistakes that waste your time—and everyone else’s

Many people feel that their inboxes exist to make work harder, rather than easier, to do. And the data suggests they’re right.

Email takes up 23% of the average employee’s workday, the Harvard Business Review reported in 2016. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s likely that you’re making one of these common mistakes that slow you down when writing or processing email. Changing a few of these habits will not only save you time, but will also make your emails faster for your colleagues to read, making everyone’s work life easier.


of the average professional’s workday is spent on email
of the average professional’s workday is spent on email

Mistake 1: Using email for sensitive messages. Email can make some messages sound more serious, formal, or harsh than you intended. In situations where you need to de-escalate tension, you might be better off dropping by for an informal, face-to-face chat.

Mistake 2: Using email for long messages. People are most likely to respond to messages between 50 and 125 words long, according to a 2015 user analysis by Boomerang. Any longer than that, and you might be better off having the conversation over the phone or face-to-face.

Mistake 3: Leaving out essential information. But you should be strategic about how you shorten your email. Before hitting Send, double-check that you’ve answered the Who? What? When? Why? & How? Experts also recommend including a few pleasantries, if your audience expects them. Usually, this can be accomplished in a few words and doesn’t need to add significantly to the length of your email.

Mistake 4: Burying the lede. Make your request, deadline, or essential point jump out at readers. A few tricks I’ve seen around the office:

  • Put requests and deadlines in bold or highlighted text
  • Put each person’s name in bold or highlighted text
  • Add a tag to the front of your subject line that explains the type of email, such as [Request] or [Reminder]
  • Get to your point in the first sentence, then save any additional explanations for later in the email

Mistake 5: Processing email as soon as it arrives. Most emails can wait. Check your inbox on a schedule that works for you, but know that the right schedule will vary from person to person. Experts universally recommend that you avoid checking your email first thing in the morning, which, for most of us, probably falls in the category of Sounds Nice but Will Never Happen. What works for me: I check my email as a short “break” between larger projects, then take a few moments to delete inbox clutter at the end of each workday and each week.

Mistake 6: Copying everyone who might possibly be interested. Who really needs to see this email? In general, experts recommend only sending your email to the people who need to do something in response to it. To make the transition easier, explain to co-workers that you want to save them time by reducing the size of their inbox. And remember that reducing the number of emails you send is the best way to reduce the number of emails you receive.

Mistake 7: Over-organizing your inbox. Inbox Zero works for some people, but for others, it’s more efficient to embrace disorganization. “It looks messy. But your desk is actually organizing itself,” says Tim Harford, journalist and economist. When you leave the papers (or in this case, emails) untouched, the ones you’re interacting with, reading, and replying to will naturally rise to the top, and the less important ones will fall to the bottom.

Sources: Burkus, Harvard Business Review, 6/8/16; Boomerang blog, accessed 10/10/18; McGregor, Washington Post, 10/31/16; Harmon, Harvard Business Review, 2/6/17; Akhtar, Business Insider, 4/26/19

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