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Typing an email

Let’s talk about an underappreciated aspect of email productivity which is…how to write an effective email.

I want to show you how you can improve your writing so your emails become:

  1. Easy to read and understand by the recipient(s)
  2. Actionable by the recipient without starting a back-and-forth email thread
  3. Minimalistic so that you decrease the number of emails you have to send
  4. Easy to find whenever you need to reference them

If you implement these 4 tactics…not only will you deal with fewer emails but you’ll also save a lot of time. That’s what we’re all about at Asian Efficiency so let’s dive in with the first tactic.

1. Improve your subject lines

The easiest way to write better emails is to use a better subject line. Most of us consider the subject line an afterthought and never spend more than 10 seconds on it.

I want you to rethink the value of the subject line. It’s the first thing you read whenever you get an email or when you’re searching for it.

An ideal subject line is very descriptive – make them as long as they need to be.

Whoever is receiving the email should be able to tell right away what the email is about. This lets them manage their email workflow better and in turn will help you manage your email workflow better when they reply. When you use a poor subject line, you make it more difficult for the recipient to process it.

As we mentioned in our simple guide to managing your email, we recommend that you use a todo list alongside our email client. This makes it easier to take action on things when you need to actually complete them. When you have this type of integration, the subject line usually turns into the name of the task. If you use a poor subject line, the accompanying task can be difficult to interpret.

Which subject line is better to deal with inside your task manager?

“P/L report” versus “Q3 Profit/Loss report due by Friday Oct 5”

I’d take the second task. Again, the more descriptive and specific you are, the easier it will be for the recipient to process the email.

As a general guideline, I would advise you to use subject lines with a minimum of 3 words. Anything less is not acceptable.

Let me share more examples of bad and good subject lines so you can see the difference.

Bad: Expenses
Good: Submission of AE conference expenses March/April of Thanh

Even though I might send that email, I’ll include my name in the subject line to make it easier for the recipient to deal with in case she uses a task manager that copies the name of the subject line. When you write about yourself in the subject line, it might be weird at first but you’ll get used to it (and the recipient will thank you for it).

Bad: Strategy meeting
Good: Cancellation of strategy meeting this Friday (Aug 22)

Do you see the difference? The lengthier the subject line, the better. Anything that’s one sentence is acceptable. Two sentences is generally not needed.

Also, the more keywords you can use, the better. These keywords can be dates, people, locations and such. See the next example.

Bad: Philippines trip
Good: Itinerary Philippines trip March 2021 w/ Thanh, Zack, Mike

Notice the use of keywords in that subject line (itinerary, Philippines, trip, date, people). When you receive this email, as the recipient you’ll know what it is about. The more powerful usage of this is whenever you need to search for this email. The more keywords you embed, the easier you’ll make it for your future self and the recipient to find emails.

Bad: Donuts
Good: FYI free donuts in the kitchen

This example showcases more of an advanced strategy – the usage of prefixes and suffixes. Think of them as acronyms that summarize what the nature of the email is and how you deal with them.

In the example above, FYI stands for “For Your Information” which means that the email is to share a piece of information that’s not considered important. As the recipient, when you see this you know how you can process and prioritize it accordingly.

Be sure to use prefixes and suffixes liberally when they are appropriate. Here are some common examples:

FYI – For Your Information. It implies that no reply is needed and is usually a short message.
Example: “FYI Free Donuts in the Kitchen.”

URGENT – Used for when something is really urgent. Don’t use it if something is not urgent. And if something is truly, truly urgent, it’s best to follow up with a call or instant messenger as well.
Example: “URGENT: Final reminder to file quarterly team reports.”

EOM – End of Message. This is usually used when the entire email is in the subject line.
Example: “Elevator is broken today, please use stairs EOM.”

NRN – No Reply Needed. Indicates that the receiver doesn’t need to reply. There is likely a body to the message where no response is needed. You can also add it at the end of a subject line if the subject line clearly defines what it is about or what the action is.
Example: “Jennifer Lopez wants you to call her back NRN.”

2. Don’t Use Reply-All Unless You Really Need To

The heading says it all – use Reply-All sparingly and only if it really is relevant to all. There is absolutely no need to unnecessarily clog up people’s inboxes with emails that they don’t need to see or read.

One study conducted by Harvard Business Review showed that the real cost of every email sent or received was $0.95. That’s almost a dollar in lost productivity for each person that deals with a Reply-to-All email. In other words, if you use the Reply-to-All feature with 10 people, that’s almost $10 of lost productivity.

When it’s just one email, it’s not that big of a deal. The problem arises when everyone on the email chain starts using the Reply-to-All where you could end up with multiple emails from the same email chain. If you then also have multiple email chains from others, it starts to get out of control.

At Asian Efficiency, we sparingly use email internally. During onboarding, I explicitly tell newcomers to never use Reply-All (I don’t even tell them the exception). In a funny way, I want them to be scared to use the Reply-All feature.

(It seems to be working because I’ve never dealt with such emails from what I can remember.)

“But Thanh…sometimes I need to inform multiple people of things. How do I do that without the Reply-to-All feature?”

Good question. If you need to send an office-wide alike email (with everyone on the to/cc list), use one of the suffixes I mentioned earlier to imply that no response is needed.

You can do this in the subject line or in the body. For example:

Subject line: Elevator is broken, use stairs NRN


Hi everyone,

As of this morning, they’re fixing the elevators. They said it might be out until noon. Use the stairs to get in the office. I will keep everyone notified when it’s working again. NRN.

If you are going to reply, there is absolutely no need to use Reply-All and have everyone see your reply. We encourage people to have discussions in person, over a call, or using team communication software like HipChat or Slack – never over email.

3. If You Need a Reply, Ask For One

One of the most underutilized tools you have at your disposal when it comes to email productivity is to simply tell people what kind of email behavior you expect from them.

If you need a response or reply to an email on a fairly-immediate basis, then explicitly tell them. You can’t assume that people will know your tone over email – you have to make it VERY clear what you want or need them to do.

One of the most useful sentences I have in my TextExpander is this one:

“Please confirm you have read this email by replying to me.”

An extended version would be: “You can follow up later with the TPS report, but please confirm receipt of this email first with a reply.”

I do this all the time whenever I’m dealing with very time sensitive projects, financial and legal cases. For example, when I’m emailing my accountant I want 100% confirmation of emails. Same goes for communication with my attorneys.

By doing this you are improving your own workflow by knowing that the information/requests have reached the people they need to reach, and you aren’t at the mercy of other people’s (likely inefficient) email workflows. This is especially useful when you’re dealing with people in different time zones or who on the other side of the world.

And if you really need to know if someone is aware of something, you can always call or instant message them.

4. Double-Check Before Hitting Send

There is absolutely nothing worse than sending an email, only to realize that you then need to send another on the same subject just to add in one additional point.

Always. Absolutely ALWAYS, double check your emails before hitting send.

Here’s a simple checklist you can use:

  1. Is the email address correct?
  2. Are the cc and bcc fields correct?
  3. Is the subject line descriptive and specific? Does it use 3 or more words?
  4. Is the body clear and actionable?
  5. Are referenced files attached?

The first one might seem like a no-brainer but a common mistake is to send the email to the wrong address because some people might have multiple email addresses (work and personal). Most modern email clients tend to autofill based on name, and sometimes you may end up sending it to someone’s personal rather than work email (or vice versa).

This also means checking which email address you are sending it from, especially if you use a desktop email client and have multiple accounts.

The rest of the steps are straightforward. Personally, I quadruple check emails all the time because I also manage the newsletter for Asian Efficiency. If I make one mistake, it’ll affect 40,000+ people. That’s $40k in lost productivity and I’d rather not see that happen!

Where To Go Next

We have looked at the outbound side of email in this article. For the inbound side (workflow), check out our piece on Simple Email Management and the Email Boomerang Effect so you know how to best process emails efficiently.

What’s powerful about email productivity is that it has a network effect. When more people apply these tactics, it’ll exponentially increase the productivity and efficiency of everyone involved. Imagine if everyone at the company would apply these tactics. How much more efficient and productive would everyone be?

If you’re the only person in your company or family who applies these tactics, YOU will save some time but you’ll still deal with inefficient emails from others. But if you can get your peers and coworkers to use these tactics then everyone will benefit and save time. That’s why I highly encourage you to share this article with your peers and coworkers.

More Email Tips

If you want more tips and hacks for dealing with email, make sure you subscribe for updates on the Escape Your Email. We have an email system that allows you to spend only 30 minutes a day on email. Sign up here and we’ll let you know when it’s available.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. This is a very important lesson to learn.
    I used to send out email telling people to check the file attached but I actually forgot to attach the file.

    Thank you so much for your advice. Great suggestions on emailing. :)

  2. I would also add, for new emails fill the to: cc: or bcc: fields after you write the body. This helps to identify the relevant people after you got the message written and avoid the “hit send by mistake”.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}