3 Letters That Will Boost Your Email Productivity 10-20%

Mar 20, 2007

Like to improve your own (or your team’s) email productivity by 10%-20%, just by using 3 simple letters? Here’s how…Some of us are better than others when it comes to keeping on top of email. I’ve seen unread email folders with 100, 500, even more than 1,000 unread emails – all silently screaming for attention and driving the poor victim/recipient ever further into a non-productive spiral.

Most organizations, divisions, departments and teams can produce immediate, lasting productivity gains by agreeing on some simple email protocols: simple agreed rules for handling email.

The email protocol with the biggest gains and ease of implementation is with regard to the use of email subject lines.

By this, I’m not referring to your individual responsibility to make the text of the subject line something meaningful (for example: “Draft Agenda for Thursday’s Review Meeting”, rather than “Re: Thursday”).

The text of the subject line is important, but there’s another, more compelling issue at stake:

The key reason most people don’t open and act on emails efficiently, is because they’re afraid of what they might find inside.

This may sound overstated – even dumb, but believe me: after years of counseling individuals and teams on productivity, I’m absolutely convinced that for most people, the volume of email is such that they can only give a relatively small amount of their energies to opening and parsing what’s landed in their inbox.

Hence, the subject line carries the greatest impact on whether or not an email will actually get opened and acted upon: If you doubt that, check your inbox over the next day, and monitor the impact an emails subject line has on whether or not you actually do anything about it.

I’ve discovered that the single most productive thing an organization, division, department or team can do to increase email productivity is to agree a set of short codes to use in email subject lines to alert the recipient as to what is expected of them.

Once the recipient can see at a glance what the ‘resource impact’ of the email is, the better they can plan and respond to it. Observationally, I’ve seen individual and productivity improvements of between 10 and 20% by using this simple technique.

Here are the six subject line ‘codes’ that I favor most – feel free to copy and amend them as you wish, and even better, make up your own, customized versions:

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Print and Distribute: Subject Line Protocols


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[EOM] – End of Message

One of the biggest time wasters with email is the need to actually open the email to read the message. Although it might not seem much, repeated hundreds of times a week, it’s quite a time burden – especially if you’re working on a Blackberry or other portable email client.

Even with a desktop client such as Outlook, or Lotus Notes, many emails just sit there, unopened, because the recipient hasn’t the time or energy to open it and read it!

If you can convey the entire message in less than say, 60 characters, put the whole message in the subject line, and close the subject line with [EOM] – that way, your recipient knows everything they need to know, without even opening the email.

For example, this email with just a subject line and no body:

SUBJECT LINE: Weekly Review is at 3pm in Conference Room 3 [EOM]

…is much better than the usual email that looks something like:

SUBJECT LINE: Weekly review meeting

BODY: This week’s weekly review meeting will be held in Conference room 3.

[NRR] – No Reply Required

A stronger version than the old standby ‘FYI’ (“For Your Information”), ‘NRR’ (“No Reply Required”) makes it explicit that you do not require a reply to this email.

Once someone can see – from the subject line – that there is no ‘response overhead’ in reading the email, it’s much more likely to get opened and acted upon. E.g.:

SUBJECT LINE: Agenda attached for Weekly Review [NRR]

[Y/N] – Yes/No Question

Most people can attack a ‘Yes/No’ decision with more alacrity than something more complicated or multifaceted. If you just need to know if they want chicken or fish, or whether 3pm works better than 4pm, use [Y/N] to get your answer more quickly. E.g.:

SUBJECT LINE: Decision needed on location of weekly review [Y/N]

[RB+ ] – Reply By (insert timeline)

Need a reply by tomorrow? Tell the recipient up front by putting [RB+1] in the subject line.

A week from now = [RB+7], a month = [RB+30], etc.. Need it today? [RB+0]. An hour from now? [RB+0.1] E.g.:

SUBJECT LINE: Will you be attending the Weekly Review? [RB+2] [EOM]

[AB+ ] – Action By (insert timeline)

Works the same way as ‘Respond By’. except that this code alerts the recipient that there is an action embedded somewhere in the email that they need to take by a certain date / time. E.g.:

SUBJECT LINE: I need the agenda for next week’s Weekly Review [AB+5] [EOM]

These two codes together are incredible productivity promoters, as they can be used by the recipient to plan needed activities in advance.

[PYR] – Per Your Request

If you’re sending someone something that they previously asked for (in other words, your email isn’t initiating any new actions), let them know right up front. E.g.:

SUBJECT LINE: Agenda attached for Weekly Review [PYR]

The bottom line:

Don’t wait until the weight of email ‘unreads’ produces the inevitable dropped ball – establish and implement your own set of email subject line protocols today.