Email, Inboxes and Autoresponders, Oh My! How to Be Highly Efficient (and Stay Stellarly Polite) at Your Online Communication

We’re living in the dawn of a golden age of self-expression.

We have more freedom and ability than ever to say conceivably anything to conceivably anyone today, and all at a moment’s notice. Instantly. Almost any place in the world. (Or even on a spaceship. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

It’s no wonder a writer like me is so excited about life these days, pulling apart the meanings of words like busy, yes and no, and need and want in my writing lately.

Why? Because our words reach across the globe at light-speed.

In this age we’re in, our words matter more and more. From what words we use to how we use them, where we use them and and how we personally understand the meanings of the words, themselves.

A line I love from Stan Lee’s Spider-Man comes to mind: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

And communication is a responsibility.

Your words carry weight. The ol’ “sticks and stones” playground saying is complete bunk.

And in the age of instant communication, we’re each obligated to speak with ultra high levels of self-awareness and personal responsibility. We see proof of how weighty words are in this communication age. The nightly news gives us headlines almost weekly about how some flippant remark on Twitter, or a hot-mic on a TV set, or how a passing comment changes the course of lives. 

Career paths halted. Opportunities squandered. A college expulsion, a crime charged. Hell, even simple feelings hurt–it matters, and it all comes to our words and how we use them.

It’s easy than ever to communicate with one another. But just because we can communicate easily with the tools at our disposal doesn’t promise that we’re doing it well, or effectively, or politely.

The 21st century demands that we become smarter, more efficient and stellarly polite communicators.

And the simple, parental advice to “just be careful” falls short.

We need to train ourselves to become excellent communicators. Good communication isn’t about “holding back.” Discipline and restraint matter, but there’s more to unravel. We need to actively practice and develop communication skills: from the words we use to how we share them, where, and why. We need to work smartly at how we communicate, and develop the tools and techniques to speak truly, honestly, and well.

With responsibility falling on our own shoulders for the words we choose, it’s more important than ever for all of us–communicators, each in our own ways–to make note of how we speak and what we speak.

It makes a language-obsessed writer like me absolutely tickled pink.

Really.

I’m fuchsia right now.

That’s why, today, I want to address a common struggle that I often hear for those of us who spend lots of time doing our communication online, especially in our inboxes.

Between influxes of emails, jam-packed inboxes, out-of-office autoresponders and more coming at us daily, the big question is,

How do I become highly efficient with my online communication, while staying stellarly polite?

Thing is, it’s not tough to be efficient with your inbox. You could be militant with your inbox. Or ignore it altogether.

The delicate balance is being both efficient, and polite–on the one hand, protecting your space and keeping your attention tidy, and on the other, making sure you aren’t dissing the people who are using email to get in touch with you.

In the age we’re living in, we’re just responsible for how we communicate as we are with spending and saving our dollars and cents.

So, let’s travel to one of the prime sources of our online communication–the inbox–and dissect our use of email to de-clutter, stay polite, and avoid drowning in the e-noise.

These tips, I hope, will help encourage you to become even more highly self-disciplined, prudent, considerate, compassionate and intelligent about the words you use–online, and off.

Ready to dive in? Let’s do it!

8 Ways to De-clutter Your Inbox While Staying Professional and Courteous

1. Consolidate your email addresses.

You might have 2, 3, 4 or more email addresses. Maybe an old Yahoo! account from 2001, maybe a work email address, then another personal account, and that’s all fine. But! If you’re not collecting all of your correspondence into one single place, you’re probably missing out on new opportunities, failing to respond to potential customers or clients, or failing to even see new relationship opportunities.

It’s like having a handful of checking or savings accounts–if they’re not front and center, and there’s not a clear cut reason why each needs to be separate, you’re probably making it harder on yourself to keep track. Separate and distended, your attention span becomes taxed.

It’s like poking a bunch of holes in your awareness. The more you have to remember, the more you’re likely to forget.

So, consolidate!

Simply set up your old, outdated email addresses to forward into one current and primary inbox, or set up autoresponders for your old accounts so that people know where to reach you. (Don’t forget to change over your default email address on important accounts like PayPal).

And, bonus tip–reply to others from one email address so that people know where to officially reach you.

2. BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) when mass emailing. 

This is one of the Ten Commandments of Email circa 1992, but some people never learned what those funky letters CC and BCC mean. (It’s kinda crazy that no cutting edge company has, like, tried to make them easier to understand, either).

The rule is, don’t copy/paste your address book into the “To:” column (or the “CC:” column, which stands for Carbon Copy–in other words, sending the exact replica to multiple email addresses).

Why is because when someone on that list clicks “Reply All,” everyone on that email list gets another email.

Translation?

More unnecessary commotion, more inboxes stuffed to the brim, more peoples’ attention getting swept into an unnecessary blip, beep, ding-dong notification.

Really, mass emailing shouldn’t be something you do at all. But, if you must, at least do your recipients the courtesy to BCC the list, so that (a) you protect the email addresses of your recipients and (b) a massive Reply All thread doesn’t get unwittingly begin.

3. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever add someone’s email address to your email/marketing list. Ever. Ever. Ever.

It’s a massive faux pax. Intrusive, passively disrespectful, oftentimes considered flat out rude.

Many who are new to email marketing don’t understand why this would be such a problem–after all, you may have collected some business cards from new connections and figure, “Wouldn’t they love to be queued into what I’m doing? They said as much when we met!”

But this is the digital equivalent of listing someone’s phone number on a national telemarketing list.

Don’t assume someone wants those 6PM, dinner-interrupting phone calls.

Email marketing lists are strictly “opt-in.” Meaning, someone has to willfully add themselves to your marketing lists. You shouldn’t do it for them. Never, ever, do it. Please. :)

Instead, invite them (no pressure) to subscribe to your stuff. Give them the option, but understand that they might prefer not to be blasted with more newsletters than they already do.

4. Clear out your inbox.

That’s the goal, right? There are religious movements dedicated to “Inbox Zero” and I’m simply dumbfounded at this never-ending battle to bring the Inbox count to zero–but only because I’ve never had such an inbox problem. Maybe I’m lucky, but here’s what I recommend you try.

Unsubscribe from all those newsletters that you never read. And the coupon offers from your favorite brands. The flash sale notifications, the new product releases, all of them.

A lot of folks think they’re missing out on “free value” and “content” that’s out in the digital world, especially if it’s coming from friends or peers whom you admire.  Let’s be real. Chances are strong that you’ll never read all that content, let alone use it.

All these emails are probably just adding to your anxiety levels, too–more “stuff” you feel you “must read” lest you be “missing out.”

So let’s commit to making our inboxes Post It sized to-do lists, not a hoarder’s attic.

Your personal space (which includes your inbox, as a primary online channel of speaking to you) should be easy to navigate and not threaten your very survival (run!).

(Okay, okay–keep a few newsletters. The ones that really matter to you right now. Just don’t be afraid to let go of the ones that you can afford to do without!)

5. Respond immediately when someone is looking for you.

It’s a sign of respect.

It reaffirms that you appreciate the time, care and consideration of the human being. Don’t assume that someone knows how much you care–use your words, or in this case your actions, to assure it.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking–you don’t want to live in your inbox.

You might feel anxious about immediately responding to someone any time they’re looking for you. Just use your discernment and understand when something is a necessity, and when it is not. Hopefully, they’ll call or text if it’s more pressing.

Your time is precious, but so is that person who’s inquiring with you, inviting you, asking you something.

Give them the courtesy.

6. Put the ball in the other court. 

This is a tip I learned from my dad. Here’s the idea:

Lots of business happens slowly. Relationships develop over time and time alone. Even in the digital world, business tends to move slow and when levels of trust are organically grown between parties.

That’s a good thing–but it means sometimes long chains of correspondence back and forth. It’s kind of like a slow-moving dialogue that allows proper thought and decision-making.

But, that often means conversations happen like a ping pong match: back and forth, back and forth. What my dad says is “Put the ball in the other court.”

As often as you can, don’t leave someone waiting for your response.

You can be patient and prudent, but don’t keep someone waiting. Take the initiative and put the ball in their court so that no one is ever waiting on you to get back to them.

This way, you’re ensuring that the back-and-forth dialogue is still moving, however slowly it must, but without it being your responsibility for why it’s taking longer than usual. Clean plate. Tidy attention. Carry on.

7. Use out-of-office autoresponders only when necessary.

Is it ever really necessary? (Of course, it is sometimes, but probably less often than we figure).

Unless you’re on sabbatical in the Himalayan mountains until 2022, most people tend to understand that email is replied to on the recipient’s time, where a phone call or in person request is far, far more direct.

Now, if you’re out-of-office and no one has a line to you, it’s understandable to use an out-of-office autoresponder to say that you’re gone.

This is directed towards entrepreneurs and self-employed folks who use autoresponders to say that you only check email once a day, or once a week, whatever.

I love you. Seriously. For your diligence and self-discipline. But, a favor for all of us?

Could you please just do what you do with your personal email rules, and not autoreply to me telling me what you do?

It fills my inbox when you tell me how infrequently you check yours.

So… Pretty please?

8. If it’s your idea, it’s your responsibility.

This is my favorite tip, because it’s probably the most important.

Let’s say you invite someone for coffee or lunch. If it was your suggestion, it’s your responsibility.

You’re responsible to confirm the appointment. To follow up if you haven’t heard back from the invitee. And it’s sure as heck your priority to make sure that you honor the very suggestion that you made.

Think of it like this.

Approach the person whom you’re inviting to coffee or lunch with the understanding that he or she might have a lot going on. You don’t want to intrude or unduly add to their plate. Following up on your own suggestions, plans and invitations is a matter of respect.

Respect goes a long way. It’s fundamental. It’s baseline. Respect is the least you can do, and when respect falls short, that tends to be grudgingly remembered.

And this advice is especially important if you’re connecting with someone who you know (or suspect) is busy, spread thin, or generally full of other obligations.

If it’s your idea, it’s your responsibility. Show up. Show up early. Confirm. Once or twice. Make good on what you suggested.

Simple, right? It’s like karmic law applied to your inbox. Do unto others’ emails.

Minimize what’s coming into your inbox, and you’ll have less to deal with.

Less quantities of “stuff” means you have more space, attention and energy to invest in the messages, correspondence and communications that matter. More space to think and reply means healthier, more detailed, more polite responses.

Everything else is a matter of professional courtesy and smarts–wicked smahts, as we say in Rhode Island–that tends to get lost in the digital shuffle of online communication.

In this age where self-expression happens via text, email, and social media at a moments’ notice, it’s all the more important to be self-aware of how we communicate.

I hope these tips help you become more protective of your attention and space (as with your inbox), but still remain highly polite, courteous, responsive and professional–since, after all, email is how most of us digital-savvy folks communicate with one another, these days.

When in doubt? Trust your gut.

dave-signature1

Enjoy this?

Share on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter to receive new stories like this in your inbox every 2 weeks: