clock in a trashcan full of crumpled papers

(First in a random series on Business Time Wasters)

Email. 

If there was any greater curse ever cast over the workplace, I can’t think of one.

Sure, it facilitates communication. And none of us can even imagine anymore how we could function in a business environment without the ability to dash off a quick note to our team or manager with a question or a status, or forward on another message for review, or pass on a document almost instantly. At first, email seemed to be a great replacement for the memo–no typing, no copying, just instantaneous communication, with no paper to throw away or recycle.

That’s how they sold us all on it.

But the reality in most organizations is that it’s a giant black hole, sucking up everyone’s time.

You don’t believe me? Take off for a week, and on your first day back at the office, start sorting through all your email that’s accumulated. I guarantee you’ll be going through them until lunch. Maybe into the middle of the afternoon. Research from the McKinsey Global Institute shows that the average employee spends 11 hours per week—that’s 28% of their time, almost a full day-and-a-half, every week—managing their email. And that doesn’t count the time that’s lost from your employees changing gears and refocusing on their work before and after checking their email.

That’s probably time you’d rather they spend on something productive, I suspect. So how do you make email more efficient? I’m glad you asked.

nut and bolt on a wheel

It’s Not the Email, It’s the Loose Nut Behind It

When I was younger, I had a friend who drove an old junker (I’m sure you had that friend, too) and anytime he had a problem with the car and asked his dad for help, the response was usually, “It’s probably the loose nut behind the wheel.”

Dad joke. Yuk-yuk-yuk.

But his point was that some problems aren’t the car, but the person driving it. And guess what? That’s the real problem with email.

There’s one main reason email sucks up so much time: It’s usually hard to decipher. Recipients have to spend time not just opening and reading email, but slogging through it to figure out what it’s about, what it’s requesting, and if they’re actually one of the people who has to do something because of it. Worse yet, they’ll start to identify whose emails are hard to make sense of and start avoiding them. Or at least putting off reading them.

So much for facilitating communication.

The four main email faults that lead to this can be summed up by the reactions they elicit:

  • What are you asking me for? –  An unclear request in an email can leave the recipient wondering what exactly they’re being asked to do.
  • What part of this am I supposed to do? – Making too many requests in one email—particularly if it’s a group email—can leave recipients scratching their heads trying to sort out which requests they’re being asked to do, and which are for someone else.
  • What is all this? – Like too many requests, information overload, with too many topics covered in one message, can overwhelm the recipients as they spend time and mental energy sorting out how they’re all connected—and it’s especially a problem when they’re not connected.
  • Why is this even an email? – some messages and requests just aren’t effectively made over email—if something that can take 30 minutes to read and understand can be explained face-to-face in five, why aren’t you doing it face-to-face?

“Yep, this is us,” I hear you saying under your breath, shaking your head. “So what can I do?”

Glad you asked.

The good news is, I’ve been through this, too. And I’ve found a great solution you can implement relatively easily to avoid these reactions from your recipients and fix these issues. It’s called the PASS method.

"Purpose, Action, Support, Subject" next to a paper envelope.

Give them a PASS

There was a point when I was leading a team and realized every member of my team was struggling with finding enough hours in the day to get to everything and we were all exhausted. This was when I brought in McGhee Productivity Solutions to help us learn how to use Microsoft Outlook to become more effective with our calendars and time.

It was life-changing.

Among the many things we discovered through this training (which I promise to cover in future posts) was the need to make email more efficient for both our work week and our sanity. And that’s how we discovered the PASS method for communicating via email. We looked it over, discussed it, got buy-in from everyone that it was a good method, and then we all agreed we’d start following it.

It made a difference for us, and it can for you, too.

PASS stands for Purpose, Action, Support information, and Subject line. By applying each of these four principles to your email messages, you can create shorter, easier-to-read, and more actionable emails for your team. Let’s go through each aspect, so you can better understand how PASS helps you reshape your indecipherable emails into something briefer and—more importantly—useful.

Purpose

Every email should have a purpose, a single objective of what it’s to accomplish, that you can sum up in one brief sentence. For example:

  • Find out what days my team member is taking a vacation next month
  • Get approval for the Whiner account proposal

Action

An email should tell the recipients what you want them to do. This means giving them a single specific action to take.  Despite how it feels some days, your team really does want to accomplish things. You can help them do that by defining clearly what you need of them.

Also, tell them when you need it done by always providing a due date or deadline—nothing is real until you put it on the calendar, and nothing tends to happen until people understand the timeframe it needs to happen in (it’s just human nature, so work with it). For example:

  • Please forward me no later than Friday the days you’re planning to be on vacation next month.
  • Please review the Whiner account proposal and send me your input by COB today.

Support information

Help your recipients by providing any additional information they may need to complete your request. Think of this as heading off any problems or clearing the way for them to getting your request done, so that they don’t spend any more effort than needed to run down what you’re requesting. This can be:

  • Check with Maria in HR if you need to know how many vacation days you have left for the year.
  • The most recent copy of the Whiner proposal is at http://salesdocuments. Be aware, we recently had a meeting with key stockholders and changed some of the terms.

Subject Line

Believe it or not, the subject line is one of the most essential parts of your email. Use it to summarize for the recipients—and, importantly—make it easier for them to spot your email as something significant among all the other electronic flotsam in their inboxes.

Yes, I know you generally write the subject line when you start drafting the email, but if you do it at the end, you have a better idea of what you wrote and how to best summarize it in the subject line. Besides, the SPAS method doesn’t quite have the mnemonic ring to it that PASS does, now does it?

email header with from, to, cc, subject line, and send button

Also, always indicate right at the beginning of the subject line what your email is requesting of the recipients. Do you need them to take action? Respond to you? Read and file? To be super effective, agree on a brief letter code system to flag at the beginning of every email subject what the message is requesting. For example:

  • AR (Action Requested)—Take action
  • RR (Response Requested)—Respond only
  • RO (Read-Only)—Read, then file or delete
  • FYI (For Your Information)—File or delete
  • EOM (End of Message)—Unlike the others, this goes at the end of the subject line to indicate the subject line itself is the message (usually used for short messages like “Running late, see you in an hour – EOM”)

Using this approach, your email subjects become more uniform and easier to discern, like these:

  • AR – Review Whiner account proposal and approve by 2/24 COB
  • RR – Are you available to travel to Toronto on October 1?
  • RO – Acme western region historic coyote sales document
  • FYI – Soylent Corp production document
  • Sick kid, running to the pediatrician, will call after – EOM

See how now, the subject line actually provides actionable direction, in just a few words, right upfront?

Keep in mind, it will take some time for everyone to get accustomed to the PASS system, especially the codes. Encourage the team to remind each other gently as they learn it, and hold people accountable for using it.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Hit [Send]

Even after you format your email according to PASS, before you send it, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this email written so nobody will respond with questions?
  • Have I included all the necessary attachments?
  • Do I need to track this email in a “Waiting For” list? Or to review in my next one-on-one with the recipient?
  • If so, be sure to CC yourself on the message, and then store your copy in a “Waiting” folder or “One-on-one” folder, so it’s easy to find later when you need it.
email inbox with notification of new email arrival

A Beautiful, Efficient Thing

What I love about PASS is how it makes every email clear from just its subject line what the recipient is being asked to do and by when. And as a manager, you know what task everyone whose name appears in the “To:” line has been assigned, and you can more easily track it and add it to your own task list and block time to follow up. 

You do have to commit to it for it to work. In my team, in fact, we were so committed to it that we added PASS and its code key to our signature lines, to remind us to use it every time we opened an email.

As I always like to do, we used a system to smooth individuals’ behaviors out of the process and let the system drive—No more loose nuts behind the wheel. And once it starts working, you’ll be shocked by how much previously email-entangled time it frees up in everyone’s day.

It really is a thing of beauty.

And I’m convinced it can be applied to another big time waster: Meetings.

But that’s another post.


To learn more about communication techniques, read The Communications Cocktail.