Improve the Your E-Mail Header   Leave a comment

E-Mail HeaderI have to confess: I don’t read every e-mail I receive. At work, I literally receive scores of messages a day. “Hundreds” is not unprecedented for me, and I know there are folks who get that regularly. Some of the e-mails are ignored because they are clearly ignorable–automated replies to ticket generation (which I retain if I have to refer back to it) and “internal spam” are two good examples of this.

However, there are two cases that go beyond that, and they are related. Given my role, my involvement in a thread may be in the early stages, and typically drops off sharply. I’ll be part of a thread discussing one project as part of a distribution of a half-dozen (or more) people. My name stays on this distribution after my obvious involvement ends. Once it’s clearly out of my scope, I’ll start ignoring the thread, in order to deal with things that are more pressing to me.

Generally, this is not a problem. Once in a while, however, it comes back to bite me. After several iterations–perhaps days or weeks into the thread–they will involve me again. Sometimes, it is a situation where they need my involvement again on the existing issue. At other times, it’s is a case where the issue itself changed over the course of the discussion (a thread about “Site 1” evolves into a discussion around “Site 2”). I know this has happened to other people.

I try to mitigate this by popping into these threads once in a while. However, there is a simpler behavior the owners of the thread can do to help out everyone. As the discussion evolves, don’t just edit the body of the message; edit the other fields. Review the “To” and “CC” lines: does everyone on that currently need to be involved? Is the subject still characterizing the discussion? By editing these items, you are able to ensure proper focus on the topic. Also, you can help everyone manage their inboxes better.

(A related topic is making sure the subject is descriptive in the first place. A subject like “Hi” or “Please Assist” is practically meaningless. Something generic (such as “Cats” for me) can also become lost in the shuffle. Make the subject as meaningful and clear as possible.)

So, help everyone out: make sure that what shows up in a message list is relevant to the recipients, and its context can be quickly understood. Update your header!

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