The Email Boomerang Effect (One Simple Trick to Reduce Email Overload)

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Emailing in the park

Let’s talk about email management – a topic no knowledge worker ever gets any coaching on. That is quite strange considering that email-related tasks take up about 25% of someone’s day at the office (source). It’s very difficult to be at your best when you are drowned in emails each day. This time can be greatly reduced and used for more lucrative and joyful projects. Do you want to know the magic trick of getting rid of unnecessary emails and to spend less time on processing emails? Then you have to know what the Email Boomerang Effect is.

Quick Summary

  • Most emails do not have to be sent at all.
  • Email is not always the best medium.
  • Send fewer emails, get fewer emails.
  • Below are examples of common scenarios that show you when to send or not to send emails.

The Email Boomerang Effect

YOU have control of the number of emails you get each day in your inbox. Here is the magical trick: send less emails.

That’s it. End of article.

Believe it or not, I get paid to give this advice to companies and professionals.

If it only was that simple to implement – that is another beast. The truth remains the same – the fewer emails you send, the fewer emails you receive in your inbox. I call it the Email Boomerang Effect. When you throw a boomerang, most of the time it will come back to you. The same applies to email. Whenever you send out an email, chances are you will get a response. From my experience and observations, for every five emails you send, you get around 3 emails back.

With some quick Asian Efficient math, that means that if you send a hundred emails a week (which is very conservative) and you reduce your outreach by 20% – you will have 12 less emails to process every week. Let’s say on average each emails takes about 4 minutes to process – that means you will save 48 minutes each week. Over the course of a year that’s a lot of time saved. And this doesn’t take into account the time you save on the recipients’ end. Within a big organization, the savings could run into the millions of dollars of employees’ time.

And the great thing is – it is really easy to do. Before you send any email, ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Is this email ABSOLUTELY necessary?
  2. Is email the best medium?

If you answer yes to both questions, feel free to send out that email.

In most cases, you really have to think twice about these questions. Let’s dissect them more closely.

Is this email ABSOLUTELY necessary?

This can a tough question to answer but nonetheless you have to ask yourself this crucial question. Does this person really need this email to function and do his or her job?

Later on in this post I will share some examples to show which types of emails usually don’t pass this test. Not surprisingly, most emails don’t pass this test. When you go over your list of recently sent emails and you ask yourself this question for every email sent, you will quickly realize most emails were unnecessary.

Is email the best medium?

Assuming your email passed the first test, the next question makes you think if email is really the best way to communicate. We have written before about the best mediums of communication for specific situations, and I highly suggest you read that post. You have to realize that email is not always the best medium to communicate information.

Sometimes you need a synchronous discussion. In other words, you need live feedback and people interacting back and forth in real time. Email is a horrible medium for this, but a face-to-face meeting or instant messaging is much more suitable. If you need to have fast responses to your emails, consider calling or texting that person.

Again, read this post on which medium to use for various situations. It will make the rest of the post much more digestible.

Real World Examples

postbox

To show you how these two simple but effective questions can be applied, I will show some examples of emails that will go through that simple 2-step checklist. See if you can relate to these by going over your own list of emails you have recently sent. I’ve broken it down in different types of emails that get sent regularly and let’s start with the first one: thank you emails.

Thank You

Scenario: Your co-worker prepared and delivered a weekly report to you. You want to thank her for it by sending her an email with “thank you”.

Question 1 – is this email ABSOLUTELY necessary? No. We need to stop sending trivial thank you emails to people – especially if it’s something routine. Reserve them for extraordinary efforts or save it for the time you see him or her in person. A sincere thank you face-to-face is much better too.

Since this email didn’t pass the first test – this automatically means you don’t have to proceed to the second question.

Carbon Copy

Scenario: You are sending a report to someone of your team but you think maybe three other people in different departments might find this report useful, so you CC them on your email.

Question 1 – is this email ABSOLUTELY necessary? No. The email itself is fine except for the part where you include other people who might find this report useful. People often think that it is better to over-communicate via email but in reality it is not. The CC feature of email is often abused because people simply don’t know when they should include other people or shouldn’t.

Only CC people who truly need this information. When you are in doubt if someone needs to be copied, it’s a telltale sign that the person doesn’t need to be included.

Reply-to-all

Scenario: You want to send a bunch of ideas in an email on how to improve a product for its next release. It goes out to a distribution list that more than 15 people are on.

Question 1 – is this email ABSOLUTELY necessary? No. This sort of broadcast can lead to disjointed discussions as people will asynchronously use the reply-to-all feature to respond to different points and people. Have you ever read an email discussion where you couldn’t follow anymore which emails referred to which person? In this case, you should have handled it differently.

If you just wants the input of people, you need to instruct people to not to use the reply-to-all function. A simple line at the end of the email will do:

“To save time, only respond to me. Do not use reply-to-all. Thank you.”

This magical line will reduce your overload by a lot. Give it a try.

megaphone car

Don't be like this guy.

Question 2 – is email the best medium? Depends.

If you just want to get people’s input and you instruct people to not to use the reply-to-all feature, then email is a viable medium. However, if the intent is to create a discussion – it would not pass this test.

For discussions, it’s more effective to have a live meeting – whether that is in person or over a conference call. This will avoid email overload by leaps and bounds. The bigger the recipient list, the more time you will save across the board when you avoid this discussion email.

FYI (For Your Information)

Scenario: You have some pop culture news to share with your coworkers, and you will email everyone you think might find this interesting.

Question 1 – is this email ABSOLUTELY necessary? No. Try to avoid sending non-work related emails during office hours. This will help decrease the burden on others but also for yourself. Remember, the fewer emails you send, the fewer emails you will get. A lot of people also (strongly) dislike receiving these types of emails on their work email address. Not to mention it is very unprofessional in certain organizations and you might get reprimanded for it.

However, there also tons of examples where FYI emails are work related. You might want to remind people of a meeting coming up or let your team know that will be coming in late. There is an effective way of sending such emails by using special abbreviations.

You can send FYI emails with the subject line as the full body of the email and end it with NRN (No Reply Needed). You will have to be clear with every recipient what this abbreviation means because not everyone will know. However, it can be a very effective way of broadcasting information when everyone is aware of what NRN means. Then you can simply send emails with subject lines such as The coffee machine is broken. Get your coffee fix downstairs. NRN or Reminder: staff meeting today at 3pm. NRN.

A slight variation of this abbreviation is EOM (End Of Message). Just like NRN, you can use this to have the main message in your subject line like Reminder: No work tomorrow. EOM or My office hours are 2-3pm TODAY. EOM. The difference between EOM and NRN is that EOM can imply that you can send a reply whereas with NRN it’s explicit that no reply is required. Both abbreviations are a great way to boost your email productivity as it allows you and your peers to scan emails and manage them in batches.

Question 2 – is email the best medium? Yes. Assuming you use the abbreviations, email is the best medium. It’s cheap and effective. A runner-up would be texting but only if the level of urgency is higher.

Incomplete

Scenario: You are in a coffee shop waiting for your coffee and you see on your phone an email that you need to reply to. You are considering sending a short email on your phone to acknowledge the person and to let him or her know that a more comprehensive email will follow shortly when you are back at your computer.

Question 1 – is this email ABSOLUTELY necessary? No. This is another form of email abuse by unnecessarily overloading your peers with more emails.

Email is arguably the worst medium for emergency cases or situations where you need a prompt response. There are better ways to reach out to someone such as calling or texting.

A better strategy is to simply wait till you are back at your computer and then to reply. Mark the email as unread on your smart phone so that you know you will need to process that email when you are at your desk. If want to do it Asian Efficiency style (assuming you have your task manager synced through the cloud), you will immediately create a task, put it on your list and process that later on.

Next Actions

You can greatly reduce your flood of emails by sending less emails. Not only will you help yourself, but you will also help your peers. In reality, for others to be just as effective you and your team need to be on the same page on how email is used for communication. As we have said before, a big part of effective communication is knowing which medium to use. Lead by example by sending less emails and if you can help and educate your peers on effectively using email, everyone will be better off.

If you are looking for group coaching on email management for your team or organization – please contact us and perhaps we can be of service.

Remember: Send less, get less. You don’t always need to throw a boomerang. Sometimes a frisbee is more efficient.

Photos by CarbonNYC, ehnmark and Esparta.

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About

I grew up in The Netherlands, went to university in Los Angeles and now I'm living in different places every couple months. When I'm not writing about personal productivity or time management, I'm probably trying out a new restaurant in the city I'm in (I love food!). One of my specialties is time management for organizations, executives and employees. The reason I started this blog with Aaron is that I love sharing my knowledge with people and helping them become a better person. This blog is a footprint I want to leave behind and I hope you get a lot of value out of my articles. Feel free to get in touch with me anytime!

7 Comments

Posted by Jeremy  | June 16, 2012 at 2:09PM | Reply

Oh.. and the most important reason to emai – CYA.

Sad but very true in some environments.

Posted by Ana  | July 28, 2013 at 2:55PM

What does CYA mean?

Posted by Thanh Pham  | July 28, 2013 at 3:34PM

Cover Your A**. Sometimes having an email trail is useful but it can also be used with other intentions.

Posted by Nathan Zeldes  | September 7, 2012 at 11:07AM | Reply

After leading the battle on organizational email overload for close to two decades, I can say with conviction that below the surface people have an interest – often unstated – in sending as many emails as they can. You can check my detailed reasoning in my post at http://bit.ly/Tw6W4A ; the gist of it is that the prevalence of mistrust coupled with over-competitiveness places people in a prisoner’s dilemma situation where no one can risk sending less emails. Unless the organization makes some serious changes in its culture, exhorting people to embrace less sending is likely to have a limited impact…

Posted by Alice Heiman  | July 28, 2013 at 2:37PM | Reply

Excellent article. Solid information everyone can use and great examples. Thank you.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | July 28, 2013 at 3:32PM

Thanks Alice!

Posted by Andrew  | October 1, 2013 at 6:34AM | Reply

Great theory and I also agree with Nathan about corporate culture where people email you at 11pm or promise to respond over the weekend.. I feel like the loan wolf by not responding immediately and keeping messages to five sentences or less.. Can’t win..

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