Email Overload Fix: 3 Sentence Emails

Email is taking up too much time in our lives.

Do yourself and your recipients a favor by making your emails 3 sentences or less.

If we all do it, imagine the time we’ll have to do other things.

If this was an actual email reply and not a blog post, it would have ended before this sentence started. I’ve been trying a new solution to email overload by limiting emails to 3 sentences or less. You can learn the details in just 5 sentences at The basic concept is to treat all email replies like SMS messages. I take this one step further and try to write initial emails in 3 sentences or less whenever possible.

I first learned about 3 sentence emails from a post by Kevin Rose, where he lists 5 good email time saving tips.

The inbox has become the “dreaded inbox” for so many people. A recent study by Xobni claimed 1 in 5 Americans check email either as the first thing they do in the morning or the last thing at night. 26% of Americans feel they can’t handle or feel overwhelmed by the number of emails they receive during vacation. Another report [PDF] by The Radicati Group says the typical corporate user sends 36 emails and receives 61 legitimate emails during the average day. An IDC study estimates email consumes an average of 13 hours per week per information worker.

Since starting at TechCrunch TV, I get about 100 to 200 emails a day which require action or a response. The newly launched Google Priority Inbox, which is getting postive reviews, helps. Although venture investor Jeff Clavier discovered it can make some mistakes. Google decided his wife’s emails weren’t important. Not good.

Even with Priority Inbox, staying up to 2am and working on emails 2 to 3 hours a day during my commute, I still can’t keep up with the email avalanche and get my inbox to zero.

My inbox problems are nothing compared to the TechCrunch writers. Or, to my boss Michael Arrington. Two years ago, when he wrote a post about email overload and a crisis in communication, he had 2,433 unread messages sitting in his inbox. Today, the count is 8 times higher: 20,131 unread messages. And this doesn’t include additional inbox items from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, voicemail, text messages, Skype, etc.

Let’s assume Mike did nothing else but read emails 24/7 – no writing posts, no talking on the phone, no eating, and no sleeping – well, that one might be accurate. It would take him 1 week to just read his email, assuming each email takes an average of 30 seconds to read and digest.

Now, let’s say all of his emails were 3 sentences or less. The average time to read them would be drop to about 10 seconds. He could get through them all in a little more than 2 days.

I’ll admit the 3 sentence email isn’t going to solve the email problem completely. In Mike’s email post two years ago, he wrote “The long term answer is that someone needs to create a new technology that allows us to enjoy our life but not miss important messages.” He said if he had the right solution, he would quit his job and go do it. Since then, there have been some minor solutions, but the email giant seems to grow just like Moore’s law.

The new version of released this week might provide some relief. MG Siegler has been using the new service for a few days now. He told me he switched some email communication to Twitter Direct Message (or “DM”), which is now cleaner and easier. And Twitter DM forces you to keep things short.

While more communication is being done by social media networks, email usage is still expected[pdf] to rise in the coming years. A Wall Street Journal article one year ago declared “Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.” I’d say not quite yet.

Mike’s growing email overload creates problems for himself and the sender. He admitted to me, once an email comes in and doesn’t get acted on immediately, it enters the black hole. Even if he wanted to reply, it’s now out of sight and unlikely to surface again. For the sender, you don’t know whether the lack of reply is really a ‘no’, a never got read, or a just wait some more time for an answer.

When Mike does reply, he has mastered the art of the short reply. Most of his replies are just 1 sentence or 1 word. ‘Fine’, ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and an occasional ‘Awesome’. Usually, it’s the folks who are higher up in the organization who have perfected the terse reply. Just yesterday, we reported on unconfirmed 2 and 3 sentence Steve Jobs emails. He allegedly emailed a journalism student that “Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade. Sorry.” Here’s another 3 sentence Jobs email reply to a customer with a water damaged MacBook Pro, upset that Apple would charge $300 to look into repairing it:

This is what happens when your MacBook Pro sustains water damage. They are pro machines and they don’t like water. It sounds like you’re just looking for someone to get mad at other than yourself.

Jobs is well known for his short replies. A study of 30,000 corporate emails found that high-status employees “tended to send short, curt messages.” That study includes some other tips on ‘How to E-Mail Like a C.E.O.’

But, a short response still requires clarity and some extra thought. A long, detailed email getting a reply like ‘fix it’ or ‘change it’, may not help unless both parties know what ‘it’ is.

Critics may say this could lead to over-simplification or a dumbing down of communication. But, emails are not the place to write War & Peace (1,475 pages.) Email has come a long way since 1971 when Ray Tomlinson typed an “insignificant and forgetable” message. It’s a great way to get asynchronous feedback. I’ll admit some emails shouldn’t be condensed, especially if they involve a lot of details or you just want to share some thoughts with friends. But those should be the exception.

Many business emails I read and yes, I write, would benefit from trimming. The next time you sit down to write or reply to an email, think about keeping it short. The site recommends you add this to your email signature to help spread the word.

Q: Why is this email three sentences or less?