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No Email Should Take More than Five Minutes to Write

By Deb Tennen · September 2, 2019
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We're all drowning in email. And if you're spending 15 minutes on every reply, no productivity system is ever going to save you. Not inbox zero, not batching, not turning off notifications—nothing. Your only hope is retirement.

My rule: I never spend more than five minutes writing a work email. And when I manage other people, it's a rule I ask them to follow too. Ideally, each email will take 30 seconds to write—then, even if you write 100 emails a day, it's still only an hour of your day—but five minutes is the max.

I call this rule the five-minute rule, and it's how I do work email. I also think it's how you should do work email, so here I'll give you some suggestions for how to make it happen.

Don't Be a Jerk (in Your Emails)

You might think I sound like a jerk here, and I am one. But I don't come across as a jerk in my emails, despite how little time I spend on them. This is in marked contrast to what Katie Notopoulos from BuzzFeed calls the "boss email":

It's defined by nearly immediate — but short and terse — replies. The classic two-word email. For underlings, it can be inscrutable. Is that an angry "thanks" or a grateful "thanks"? Does "please update me" imply impatience with you? Boss email can be the workplace equivalent of getting a "k" text reply from a Tinder date.

But writing quickly and concisely doesn't have to come off as cold or impenetrable. It takes just as long to write "Hey, any updates here? Thanks!" as it does to write "Where are we on this?" Even getting rid of the potentially disingenuous "Thanks!" feels a thousand times more approachable than the latter option.

The phrase

How to Follow the Five-Minute Rule

You can turn the five-minute rule into the three-minute rule, the one-minute rule, or the 30-second rule. Whatever makes the most sense for the role you're in. For example, if you're often communicating with contractors who need unique feedback, you might need those five minutes. If you're mostly communicating with your coworkers, it should probably be 30 seconds—or less.

Other than the always fun advice of "don't overthink it," there are some concrete ways to be sure you're not dumping too much time into your emails.

Time yourself

This one's simple: Set a timer. Nothing fancy needed—just turn your phone timer to five minutes, and when it's up, you're done. No matter how much of the email you have left to write, you need to wrap it up. I'd suggest having a canned final sentence in case you run out of time. Some version of this should work:

I'll stop there, but I'm happy to dive deeper or clarify anything as needed!

(Exclamation point optional but encouraged if you're cutting your email short.)

If you end up using your canned final sentence a lot, you'll know you need to get better about getting to the point quickly, which will shorten your writing time. Remember that people don't have time to read emails just as you don't have time to write them. So dive right into whatever you're emailing about.

Create canned responses

Take a day to create canned responses—email templates for messages that you send often. There are a couple ways to do this:

  1. Use a text expander, an app that reads what you type anywhere on your computer, and automatically replaces snippets of text with full-blown sentences and paragraphs. For example, you can set it so that every time you type thx, it automatically changes it to Thanks for reaching out! In more robust uses, you can have keywords for specific email templates—type the keyword, and an entire email will appear.

  2. If you wear a tinfoil hat like I do and don't want a text expander reading your every keystroke, use the canned response feature in your email provider. Both Gmail and Outlook have a canned response feature, and we can walk you through how to use them. This requires a few extra clicks, but it'll even autofill a subject line for you.

Canned responses in Gmail

I currently have 28 canned responses in Gmail (called Templates), ranging from a few sentences to long paragraphs outlining processes.

Use word count tools

The amount of time it takes to write an email doesn't always match the number of words you end up with. Sometimes, you labor over an email because you want to be sure you're using precisely the right tone, and a six-sentence email takes you 15 minutes to write. But usually those kinds of emails are a bit more...fraught.

If your issue is that your emails are too long, get in the habit of using a word counter tool to stop yourself. Outlook provides a one-click way to do this, but you'll need to use a Chrome extension like Word Counter Plus to get the feature within Gmail.

I haven't been able to find a tool that actually cuts you off after a certain number of words, but it would be a great feature (as long as you can override it when necessary).

Ditch the email chain

If you think it'll take longer than five minutes to write, your email probably isn't an email. It's probably a memo sent in email form or a persuasive essay that starts with "Hi."

The point: Don't try to shove a collaboration-shaped peg into an email-shaped hole. Instead, use a tool that's meant for what you're doing.

If you're listing out all of your availability for a meeting, use a calendar app. If you're coordinating a project or updating people on progress, use a project management app. If you're sending a list of questions, turn it into a meeting pre-read and schedule an associated meeting, so you don't unwittingly create an email chain of doom.

Example: I spend lots of time giving feedback to freelance writers. I do it in Google Docs, where I can leave specific comments on specific sentences, paragraphs, or sections. When I'm done, I write a 30-second email letting the freelancer know I've reviewed the work and left comments in the doc. It's easier for them to parse my feedback this way, and it saves me loads of time. (I could even automate an email when I change the editing status in my project management app.)

Email to a writer letting them know that I

Never be afraid to archive or delete an email chain that doesn't require a response. Only you can prevent unnecessarily long email chains.

If you just can't stop writing long emails, maybe it's time to ditch email altogether. Try composing messages from within your CRM, using Slack with your coworkers, or automating your work to the point where email isn't as much of a nuisance.

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