How many people do you receive e-mail from that you read and reply to every single time?

I’m guessing it’s just a handful: Your best friend — the one who sends you short periodic updates with a single recent photo, not the one who sends you weekly 2-pagers. The super-smart former colleague, now a rising star at another firm, who e-mails you two or three times a year with useful introductions or a succinct request for help you can actually provide. The client who sends you the latest round of project notes in a friendly, tightly-edited bullet list. And maybe, for the sake of self-preservation, your boss (unless your boss is one of those 45-separate-emails-a-day types, at which point I bet you’re doing some subject line-based triage.)

What do these correspondents have in common? Each one offers:

  • A benefit for reading each message: it’s pleasurable or it helps you do your job better/more efficiently
  • A limited claim on your attention (both in the frequency and length of messages)
  • Emotional gratification: the tone of their messages reinforces your positive feelings about your relationship (and if your boss consistently writes in a way that doesn’t make you feel positive, it’s time to consider a move)

In other words, each of these correspondents provides a high return on investment — either because the time required to read their correspondence is very low, or the pay-off is relatively high (compared to the other messages in your inbox).

This is the kind of e-mail correspondent we should each aspire to be. But it’s not something you can achieve by signing a manifesto or adding a sig line that says “I hope you enjoyed this friendly, concise and valuable message.”

You’ve got to get there by actually writing the kind of messages you want to receive — and only those messages. You’ve got to ask three questions of each message you send, before you send it:

  1. What problem does this e-mail solve, or what benefit does it offer, for the person I’m writing to?
  2. Could I make this e-mail shorter? If I’m going to e-mail this person again today or this week, could I usefully combine multiple messages into one?
  3. Does the tone of this e-mail reflect my affection and respect for the person I’m writing to?

Ask yourself these three questions, and you can become the kind of e-mailer you wish to see in the world. If we each work towards that goal, we can look forward to a day when opening our inboxes is a moment of delight rather than dread.