E-mail Mistakes & Tips - that waste time and make you look dumb
Photo Credit: kajarno via Flickr
1. Never, ever use email to avoid 
having a difficult conversation with someone. 

A lot of people do this, and they usually give the same excuse: “I feel that I express myself better in writing.”  It’s a self-centered justification that doesn’t actually improve communication. What they’re really saying is “Writing a long e-mail makes me feel less vulnerable and lets me pretend I’m in control of this difficult situation, because conflict makes me really uncomfortable and I don’t want anyone to know that I’m not in control of this situation.”   Giving in to this excuse just escalates misunderstandings and drags them out needlessly. I agree – it’s certainly more comfortable addressing a difficult subject from the comfort and privacy of your computer screen. But what feels comfortable is not the same thing as what is the most effective; and I guarantee that the other person won’t understand you better in writing. They never do. What seems perfectly clear and reasonable in your head after spending an hour composing an e-mail is easily misunderstood without tone, expression, and the other guy being able to ask questions and get immediate clarification. What they do communicate clearly is tension and aloofness — because when someone receives a five paragraph e-mail about a tense subject, they feel like they have to respond with a similarly long e-mail… and the cycle spins out of control while everyone wastes hours writing e-mails. Long e-mail just trigger more long e-mails… and very little else.

Yes, it’s less comfortable and you’ll feel more vulnerable if you talk it out – but it’s better to be uncomfortable for five minutes than it is to spend five days (or five months!) sorting out a conflict via email that could have been prevented with a single face-to-face conversation.  

2.  Stop Over-Thinking Your E-mails. 

Ever spent 30 minutes trying to nail just the right balance of breezy and professional tones when you e-mail a new contact about meeting for lunch?

STOP!  It’s an e-mail, not an English paper.

Don’t try to compose an e-mail any differently than you would a thought in a conversation. If the other person was standing in front of you, you wouldn’t spend 10 minutes trying out different ways to say “Hey, want grab lunch next Tuesday and talk more?” You’d just say, “Hey, want to grab lunch next Tuesday and talk more?”  And trust me, you’re not fooling or impressing anyone. Your reader can tell when you’ve over-thought an e-mail because you end up saying something unnatural and impersonal – something you’d never say in normal conversation,  like “Would you care to join me for lunch sometime on Tuesday to discuss more about your fascinating business initiatives?”

Instead of making you look better, it just makes you sound socially awkward and uncertain. I guarantee that the recipient didn’t put half as much thought into reading it as you did into picking just the right word. Your e-mails should sound like you when you talk, so just write what you’d say it if the other person were standing right in front of you. You can’t go wrong when you keep it simple and natural.

3. Check your email no more than two or three times each day.

Unless you’re an defense attorney or a doctor, you don’t need to be on call 24/7. Think of how many e-mails you get every day, and how much time you spend refreshing your feed. How often do you interrupt an important job because your smartphone chirped at you? How often is that email something ACTUALLY urgent? And how often is it another newsletter or 35% off coupon from the GAP? I mean, yeah – I love a coupon as much as the next girl, but it’s not worth interrupting my work. E-mail is not the medium for sending urgent messages, so most e-mails can wait a couple of hours for you to answer them. If something is truly urgent and time sensitive, most people will call you about it.

You’ll get much more done – and feel less frazzled – if you check your e-mails no more than two or three times each day: once in the morning, once around lunch time, and once an hour before quitting time.   Of course, you should make exceptions when you’re expecting an urgent or important message, or working on a time sensitive project. But that’s probably not the majority of your work.

So turn off the e-mail notifications on your smartphone. Close your Outlook or e-mail tabs.  Set an alarm to tell you when it’s time to check your e-mail, and stick to it.

4.  Never Spend More Than Ten Minutes -MAX – on an E-mail

This is a close relative to Deadly Sin #2 – but they are different. Most e-mails are about simple issues and questions that you should be able to answer in less than two minutes: Want to grab lunch? Can I reschedule this meeting? Can you send me the most recent sales numbers? Try setting a timer for 3 minutes and try to spend no longer on these emails.

Some e-mails will take a little longer — someone asking for advice, an explanation of a bill, or a personal quote for a specific service. You can expect to spend 5 minutes or more on these kinds of emails.   If something takes 10 minutes or more for you to explain in writing, you should probably just pick up the phone and explain it in person.  The only time you should spend a long time writing an email is if you’re sending someone detailed instructions for doing something. And then, you should save a copy of it somewhere so you can use it again if the same question comes up again in the future. 


A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.