Home > Articles

Effective Email for IT Professionals

We all know that email can be a very useful tool for communication and action in the modern business. But it also can waste huge amounts of time. Pat Brans suggests several best practices that can help you to make the best use of your time with email, without letting it consume your entire day.
Like this article? We recommend

One of the most powerful notions on personal productivity came about well before the information age. Here's how it works: When you sit down at your desk to go through the stack of papers that have been nagging you for attention, pick up each document in succession and throw it away, file it for reference, or act on it immediately. Don't put it back down on your desk to work on later. This practice can be summarized as follows: "Touch each document only once."

This simple idea is easily extended to email. Don't open your mailbox until you have time to work your way through messages, and "touch" each message exactly once. If an item is junk, move it to the trash icon. If it contains useful information, but requires no action on your part, keep it for reference. In all other cases, act on it or reply to it immediately.

How Often? How Much?

Some people keep their email software open all day and get notifications upon arrival of new messages. Other, slightly less-obsessive people, check their mail several times an hour, either at their desks or on their smartphones. But unless you're waiting the arrival of a specific, important message, and you can't take action until you get it, constantly checking your email turns out to be a huge time-waster, because you're constantly jumping back and forth between two or more tasks. When computers multitask, they always lose time but never information. When people multitask, they lose both time and information.

The motivation behind this practice of constantly checking email is also questionable. According to Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D., of DePaul University, procrastination researcher and author of the book Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, when faced with something we really don't want to do (for whatever reason), a common avoidance mechanism is to set up a system of distractions, such as email notifications.

To keep interference to a minimum, a good habit to get into is to open your mailbox only at certain times of the day—for example, at 8:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m. When you sit down to work on your mail, set aside enough time to clear out your inbox. These habits will free you to think about other things during the rest of the day.

In case you're wondering how your daily volume of email compares to that of other IT professionals, let's go straight to the top and consider the throughput of one of the world's most successful software engineers. Bill Gates has said that while he was running Microsoft, he would set up filters so that he got around 100 messages a day. These would be from people he knew or anybody in a partner company with whom he had already corresponded. In addition, he would read a write-up from his assistant about some of the other email that he filtered out.

Minefields of Ambiguity

In their book Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication, Alton Barbour and Mele Koneya say that 55% of what we communicate is through eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body posture. Another 38% comes from tone of voice and rhythm of speech. Only the final 7% is via the actual words and their meanings. Whether or not this very precise breakdown is exactly right, there's no denying that an awful lot of information is communicated through what we see and hear.

Another observation is that we tend to fill in the blanks. When we don't have enough information, we interpolate and extrapolate to complete the picture. A perfect example occurs when we see a minimalistic sketch of a face, in which only five or six lines are drawn. Often you can still recognize the person, because you take the little bit of information that's provided and fill in the details on your own.

Given these two points, think of the enormous opportunity for misunderstanding when we communicate via email. There is neither body language nor tone of voice; and the conversation isn't back-and-forth in real time, so we can't ask for immediate clarification. We read the words and fill in the missing information. Not surprisingly, we often get the meaning wrong; still more frequently, we misread the emotion behind the message.

Certain terms also lend themselves to easy misinterpretation. For example, take the acronym ASAP, which is literally short for "as soon as possible." Since we frequently hear ASAP used in the context of a boss issuing an ultimatum to an underling, when a sender uses ASAP in a message, even when the intention is to stress that the message recipient can get to the request whenever possible, it can seem as if the sender is barking an order. Another rich source of miscommunication is in the excessive use of capital letters and exclamation points, which frequently come across as shouting.

Best Practices for Effective Email

  • When sending a message, navigate around ambiguity and add extra words to make your feelings clear. A good way to avoid sounding harsh is to use the word please liberally. Call the recipient by name, and go out of your way to sound constructive.
  • When reading a message, give the sender the benefit of the doubt. Instead of reacting immediately to a message that seems insulting, take a break and come back to it. On a second reading, you might catch meaning that you missed in the first reading.
  • Acknowledge receipt of the message. (That is, unless you don't want to build a working relationship with the sender.) If a full reply requires a lot of work, you might simply say that you got the message and will provide a full response by a specific time, such as tomorrow afternoon. Consider these possible ways in which the sender might interpret your lack of response:

    • The message didn't reach your mailbox. (Possible, but hardly likely.)
    • You didn't notice the message among all the other messages you get every day.
    • You read the message and will respond later.
    • You disagree with the message content.
    • You dislike the sender.

    If you don't reply, the other person will quite likely choose the interpretation that reinforces his or her fears.

    Some of the CEOs with whom I work have set up a personal rule to get back to everybody within a certain amount of time. One person, who runs a consulting company, tries to respond within four hours because doing so reinforces the service-oriented mindset he likes to maintain. Another told me that he tries to reply to all communications by the end of the same day. Still another has set up a company-wide rule to reply to all mail within 24 hours.

  • Be careful about forwarding messages. Maybe the sender didn't want to share his or her thoughts with the other person. Or maybe there's something embarrassing or insulting to the person who receives the forward. It's a good idea to check over the content carefully before forwarding.
  • When you write to somebody, try to make it easy on the recipient. You don't want to create unnecessary work, and you want to make it as easy as possible for people to respond. Keep the message short. If you have to ask several questions, consider sending more than one message. That way, if there's a question that requires more thought, the recipient can easily get back to you on your other queries in the meantime.
  • Avoid composing messages with sections addressed to different people. Otherwise, you're asking the readers to filter out large parts of your correspondence that don't concern them.
  • Always use a subject line. You want something that cries out for the message to be touched, but you also don't want to be misleading. Choose a few words that give the recipient an idea about the content. If appropriate, include an indication that the message requires action. For example, if you're waiting for your boss to approve a project, you might catch his attention with this subject line: "Decision Requested: Go ahead on project."
  • Address people at the beginning of the message, as if you were sending a letter. This practice makes it clear that you're talking to the recipient, and it's much better for relationship-building. Some people like to start out with "Hi Pat," "Dear Pat," or simply "Pat," followed by the content of the message.
  • Signing off is always a good idea. It provides a clear indication that your message is complete, it allows you to express a feeling toward the other person, it gives you the opportunity to set an expectation (perhaps "Thanks in advance for a quick reply"), and it's a good way to set a date for your next exchange.

See you next time!

Pat Brans

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020