5 Habits to give your emails superpowers - 52 Weeks of Habits52 Weeks of Habits


If you’re old enough to remember when email first became popular–it used to be a great experience. You would go home, boot up your main computer (before browser-based email became a thing) and lavish those 4 or 5 emails you received from a few people you cared about a lot. You would write out long thoughtful responses, and be satisfied with the email experience from start to finish.

Now it goes more like this. We open our Gmail (from anywhere!) and feel a moment of dread when we realize there are a hundred new emails with people wanting our attention. And if you’re like me, you ignore a decent chunk of them. The ones with deals you don’t want, updates you don’t need, and text simply too long to bother with.

Oh good, I was looking for a new book

A big part of the problem is that a lot of people simply write bad emails. But if you want to get noticed, get people to respond to you, and successfully cold email random people you either want to know or want to sell to you’ll need to stand out from the pack. These are some simple habits you can develop in your email writing to do it.

1. Have a Clear Call to Action (CTA)

This is at root a marketing concept, but it apples to communication as well. If you send someone an email and the content has a string of questions like this:

How are you? How’s work going? Did you get that promotion? What are you doing this summer? Did you end up getting that puppy you were considering? Oh how do you like your Acura–I was thinking of getting one?

You’ll inevitably turn them off by having too many things you want them to do (in this case, having too many questions). It’s the same as if I littered each paragraph with links that you should click on like this one, and this one, and this one. (Don’t worry, they’re all adorable dog pictures). You’d have no idea what I want you to do, and most likely end up doing nothing.

The simplest solution is to just have one thing you want from your email. It could be:

  1. The answer to one over-arching question
  2. Clicking on one link
  3. Getting one opinion
  4. Getting an agreement

Or whatever else you need. Just don’t pollute your one call to action with a bunch of other options.

2. Have Strong Subject Lines

The subject line is, in many ways, the gatekeeper for your email. When I’m deciding what gets read and what doesn’t I’ll filter a lot of it by the subject line, especially when it’s from a company trying to sell something.

The same goes for emails to friends/coworkers though. If you send an email with the subject line “Hey can you help me with this?” Most people don’t want to volunteer for extra work/favors and will delay opening it. Same thing with “What are your thoughts on X?” When we see a subject like that we assume it’s going to require a lengthy response, and delay opening it.

The subject line should make someone want to open your email, or at least make them not dread it. “Quick questions, ~10 second response” is a lot less intimidating than “Hey what are your thoughts on this?” Another good solution is to say “Quick yes/no question” so all they have to do is respond with one word. If you’re sending a cold email, this is where you need to feature what’s in it for the receiver. “Hey let’s meet” is not getting you anywhere. “Hey want to be interviewed for a blog with ~100,00 monthly readers?” Will certainly get them interested.

3. Be Concise

You’ve probably heard this as general advice for communication, but it’s especially important in emails. If the average white-collar worker sends and receives ~105 emails per day, then you need to make yours very quick and easy to read. Some very simple rules to follow for this are:

  1. Keep it below 5 sentences. You could even include a disclaimer in your signature that you write all emails in <5 sentences, or just put “sent from my iPhone” at the bottom of all of your emails.
  2. Have 1-2 sentence paragraphs. Chunks of text are ugly and when someone sees an intimidating wall of text they’re much more likely to skip it or skim it. Breaking it up into smaller chunks helps a lot.
  3. On that note, try to keep your line length less than 70 characters. 50-70 characters is a design standard for easy reading, and if you can replicate that in your emails then do so.

4. Informal, Unless they’re a BSD

(If you’re not sure what a BSD is, this should explain it)

We were taught at some point to address people formally when we don’t know them, but doing so keeps them at a distance and impedes the quick development of a relationship over email. In general it’s best to just call people by their first name, don’t give the bullshit “How’s your day going?” or “I hope the weather is treating you well!” just get to the point as you would with a friend.

If it is a friend, don’t use the stock “intro” questions like “how have you been?” These are incredibly obvious at this point and aren’t even expected to be answered anymore. If you have a good catching-up question to lead with that’s specific then use it, otherwise just get to the point.

5. Finally, Be Responsive and Persistent

The worst thing you can do after emailing someone is go MIA and not respond to their response. The second-worst thing you can do is not follow up if they don’t respond. Luckily there are easy solutions for both of these to decrease the amount you have to remember to do.

The solution to the first one? Respond. It’s that simple–they took the time to write back to you, and especially if you were asking for something you owe them the courtesy of being equally responsive.

For the second one, I recommend installing “Yesware.” It’s marketed as for salespeople, but in reality it’s great for anyone who needs a reminder if they haven’t been replied to. Yesware can track your emails, tell you if they’ve been read, and send you a notification if no one responds within a set period of time. This way you don’t need reminders yourself, you just get Yesware to do it for you. On their free plan you get 100 “events” a month (reminders, tracked opens, etc.) which is most likely more than you ever need.


  1. “105 emails per day” http://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Email-Statistics-Report-2011-2015-Executive-Summary.pdf





One Response to 5 Habits to give your emails superpowers

  1. 3 years ago by SJ Scott


    Love what you have to say about the “right” way to do email. Specifically around the idea of a strong (and descriptive) subject line and brevity in the body.

    If everyone were to follow these rules, the world would be a far better place.