Snip those email threads!

Image from
Jul 27 2020 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Knock it off. Just stop it. Seriously. Enough. Don’t make me come over there…

No matter where in the world we are, or what business we’re in, or whether it’s sales people or project managers, there is one complaint everyone shares about communicating with their teammates: long email threads.

You know the ones I mean. They start out as a simple request for information, or “Thank You”. But then they grow into 37-email-long strands of blather that convey the real history of the Johnson project from conception to debrief. They get shared with dozens of people who will never read them - just in case they need the information, you understand - and are basically useless to those who might benefit from the information buried deep down inside them.

They start innocuously enough: you send an email asking for information and they respond. Then you require more information, or wish to extend thanks for their efforts, to which they feel obliged to respond. Then you have another question - maybe related, maybe not - and it’s easier to hit “reply” to an existing message than to actually create a new email message. After all it only takes 0.78 seconds to create a new message and have autofill put the recipients email address in. (I know, because in a fit of pique I timed it.)

Then you have a question about that email, and you want them to know what you’re referring to, so you include the original email, and they answer but with a question of their own, then you respond with a thank-you because your mother taught you to be grateful, and they thank you for your gratitude and have another question - on a completely different topic, but hey, while we’re talking to each other - and that requires a response and…

If what you just read made your head hurt (and a thousand apologies to my long-suffering editor who may be bleeding from the ears, but we’re making a point for the common good here), then imagine that continuing for another two weeks before someone breaks down in tears and actually picks up the phone.

There are several things you can do to stop this madness. The time required is less than eight seconds per idea and may save a lot of time and sanity. You’re welcome in advance.

  • If the topic being discussed has no relevance to the subject line of the email, it’s a new email. So change the subject line.
  • If the relevant information is more than two emails deep in the thread, cut and paste the relevant information into a new email.
  • The same goes with attachments. Download and save them immediately because trust me, you’ll never find them again, which will create more email.
  • If you’re cc:ing a boss on the thread, explain what they should be looking at. Don’t expect them to scroll through the entire thread to uncover what the problem is. While you’re at it, don’t bother. Just cut and paste the relevant information into a new email.
  • If you really need to create a paper trail of email communication, use a file folder on your email directory to save relevant information, and name it something you’ll actually understand when you come back to it in two weeks.
  • If you’re relying on that email thread entirely, you’re one accidental “delete” away from disaster.

We know why these threads occur, of course. We’re in a hurry. Or we’re on our phone and don’t want to write a complete message so we send a promise of more to come. Those are legally defensible claims, but is it the best way to communicate, or simply the quickest? And do those time savings up front come at a cost when you actually have to turn all that electronic garble into usable information?

Email is a valuable tool, all too frequently used poorly. Here’s the thing. You know this. So knock it off. I don’t care what the other kids are doing.

Now, don’t make me tell you again.

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.