10 Essential Email Skills for Any Freelancer
By Leo Babauta
Let’s face it: email has become the default way for freelancers to connect.
We use email for nearly everything: contacting potential clients, we discuss assignments and projects, we submit completed assignments, even doing research.
Sure, there’s chat and IM, there’s the phone, and a number of other connection tools. But email is the most important for most freelancers, and as such, your email skills shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Here are a few of the most essential that you should polish:
Limit email checking. One of the problems of being connected all the time is that you’re being interrupted all the time. You can’t get work done if you’re constantly checking your email — your time then becomes at the mercy of anyone’s request. Turn off your email notifications, and focus on your work when you’re trying to get something done. I recommend setting two times a day for processing email of 30 minutes a day — once at mid-morning, and once by the end of the day. This keeps you in touch enough to conduct business, but leaves you with large chunks of time to actually get your work done. Keep your email processing times short, and restrict yourself from email at all other times. It may sound impossible, but trust me — it’s doable.
Get your inbox to empty. This may also sound impossible for some people. An empty inbox is true bliss, believe me. If your inbox is full of hundreds (or thousands) of emails, put them in a temporary folder to be processed later (devote 30 minutes a day to clearing this folder). Now, for all new emails, when you process your email twice a day, open one at a time, starting from the top, and make a decision for each one. Dispose of that email, then move on to the next, until your inbox is empty. Here are your options for each email: delete, forward (and archive), do the task now (and archive the email), add the task to your to-do list (and archive the email), or just archive the email for later reference. Choose one of those, and move on. Now follow these rules to keep your inbox empty from now on.
Limit email writing. Another problem with email is that the sender is requiring a lot of time commitment from the receiver. The sender might ask a couple of short questions, but in truth, it could take half an hour for the receiver to write out the answers. Instead, limit your emails to a few short sentences, getting to the essence of the request, or referring the sender to other sources. You don’t have time to write out long replies to everyone. Brevity is important here.
Stay on point. Along the same lines, it’s a common mistake for someone writing an email to move all over the place, asking multiple questions, writing about multiple topics. When you’re writing an email, ask yourself: What is the main point I’m trying to convey? Then stick to that, and be brief.
Filter out all but the essential. Is your inbox filled with useless emails? Then filter them out, so that the only things that come into your inbox are things you really want to see. First, unsubscribe from mailing lists, newsgroups, advertisements and brochures, and anything else that’s not essential to your work. Then, create a killfile for all those people who just send you junk mail, chain letters, jokes, and the like (add their email addresses to a filter, and have the filter delete them). You can always review your deleted folder later, if you have time. Now put non-essential emails in another folder (like notifications, comments from your blog, etc.). Do the same for any other non-essential email, leaving only the emails you need to see or respond to or take action on right away.
Be professional. It’s common for people to write emails with lazy grammar, spelling, capitalization, slang and the like. Well, that’s fine if you’re writing to your relatives or best friends, but otherwise, try to observe the rules of writing. Capitalize correctly, try to spell words correctly, and don’t use slang. Begin emails with a salutation (at least a “Hi Leo”) and end with a signature.
Don’t forget attachments. A common rookie mistake is forgetting attachments when you send an email. To correct this, make it a habit of attaching any necessary files first, before you write the email or even write the subject and recipient. Practice this habit consciously for a week to make it stick.
Review & revise. Another habit you should consciously form: before pressing the “send” button, review your emails. Check them for spelling, for the attachment, for the correct recipient(s), for the subject line, to make sure that the email is concise, accurate and on point. It should only take a few seconds to review and revise (if necessary), but it will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.
Take action. Always review emails you receive to see if there’s action you need to take. If so, add it to your to-do list or calendar, as appropriate — don’t leave it in your inbox. Your inbox should not be your to-do list — it’s an inefficient method for actions. First of all, the subject line of emails do not usually contain the action, meaning that it takes a few seconds (or longer) to remember the action contained in an email, which means you’ll need to spend more time than necessary reviewing your to-do list. An email program is also a bad list manager — you can’t prioritize or reorder as necessary, or separate into different contexts. Instead, have a separate to-do list (I use a notebook), and write down any actions necessary, with a note to see the appropriate email if you need more info.
Follow up. Another important list, in addition to the to-do list, is the follow-up list. For this, you can use a separate list as well, or you can just create a follow-up folder in your email program if you want. File all emails you send that need follow-up in this folder. To make things faster, just “cc” yourself and create a filter so that emails that you send to yourself are filed in the follow-up folder.
What email skills do you find essential? Let us know in the comments.