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How to GTD-ify fuzzy emails, plus a subject line hacking primer

(Apologies to the out-going president.)

Here's a GTD FAQ: A client recently asked me how to handle vague emails like this:
Would enjoy catching up. Feel free to call sometime to chat - [phone #]

Here's her summary of the problem:
"feel free to call sometime"... my GTD brain explodes! How do you deal with something so ambiguous?

She's spot-on: What is the next action? In case you've had similar messages, I thought I'd share my thinking.

Questions for you

  • What similar kinds of email have you received? Care to share?
  • What methods have you found that help dispatch these kinds of messages?
  • Any suggestions for coaching or modeling senders so that future emails are clearer?
  • What email subject line hacks [1] do you use?

Suggestions for handling "like to sometime" emails

I've had messages like these myself, and have experienced confusion in how to respond. The questions is what action do you want to take, in this case whether you really want to talk or not. Let's break this down into three rough categories:

  1. Not interested
  2. Moderately interested in talking
  3. Definitely want to talk to her

First, it's best is to decide right when reading the message whether it's a #1 or #3, and dispatch accordingly. Let's look at those two, then analyze #2.

#1 is easy: Archive the email and be done with it, NRN [1].

#3 can be straightforward or not, depending on how motivated the sender is to talk. If motivated and responsive, schedule a phone call. However, if she can't or won't schedule a time, and, again, you really want to talk, then you have to add a near-term action "Try to catch __ by phone at [phone #]." This is a pain, and is why voicemail exists. So you either play "phone tag" or "lottery" (repeatedly try to reach her at her desk/cell phone). Good times to try are early before work starts, lunch time, and end of day after others in her office have gone home.

Of course #2 is trickiest, but telling. The question is why the fuzzy feeling on your end? For me I'm usually motivated by a lukewarm estimate of potential value, and - if I knew I wouldn't disappoint - I'd probably skip it. I've done both (skipping and making a half-hearted effort to connect), and my thinking now is ... drop it. I.e., make it a #1. You can always change your mind, and if they push you might give in, but you're attention is too precious otherwise.

Thanks for the tasty question!

Her Follow-up Comment

Nice analysis, thanks. I guess what I really want is for other people to recognize that clarity is important for both of us, and putting these kind of vague, noncommittal requests out through email is totally unhelpful :).

I think you're right that most #2's won't lead to much of high interest/value, so it's lower stress to let them go. That also leaves more time to network with people who I can actually meet in person, which always seems more fruitful.


  • [1] NRN (No Reply Necessary) is an acronym [2] used in email subject lines to minimize impact on you and others. Marilyn Paul, author of the best-selling It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys, in my interview called them "subject-line protocols," and explained that they speed communication.

    Best yet is using the subject line for whole message (Twitter-style, I suppose), so recipients don't have to open the email to read a single line. Signal this by ending with EOM (End Of Message) or END. More at How "EOM" Makes Your Email More Efficient.

    Following are a few that I know about, pulled from the late Marc Orchant's Work is Broken and an OpenSubject wiki (via Jeremy Wright's Email Tags post). Some are more useful than others.

    • 1QM: One Question Message
    • AET: Answer Expected Today/this Week/within a Month
    • AR: Action Required
    • ATC: Attachment is important
    • AYQ: Answering Your question
    • END: See EOM
    • EOM: End Of Message
    • FYA: For your Archive
    • FYI: For Your Information (no action required)
    • IMP: Important (but not requiring action)
    • INT: Internal (generally used for policy or procedure announcements)
    • MQM: Multiple Question Message
    • NRB: Need response by [date and time] (e.g., "10/30 3:00 pm")
    • NRN: No Reply Necessary/Needed
    • RAF: Read and Forward (I suggest not routing messages like this. Instead, pick specific, relevant recipients, or put it in a central reading resource.)
    • RAL: Read At Leisure
    • RR: Reply requested
    • RRAL: Reply Requested At Leisure
    • RYN: Reply with 'Yes' or 'No'
    • TY: Thank you (Part of my suggested "No Thanks" email policy: If your response is simply "Thank you," then don't send it. Heartless? Depends on your culture's expectations.)
    • URG: Urgent
    • WFR: Waiting for your Reply/Advice/Permission

    Any favorites of yours?
  • [2] Do I have a thing for acronyms? Yes, and probably due to early indoctrination at NASA, where the first thing they gave me in orientation was a thick book of them because they became their own language. In fact, I'm told it's grown so big that they're now on-line. (I apologize for the reference-within-a-reference. I couldn't help myself.)

Reader Comments (16)

Such emails are super easy for me.
If the original email from me then I send the follow up email with specific simple question, very simple so that the other guy can answer yes/no. The I take him through few more like these and get the idea of the potential outcome.
If the original email from the other guy, then i reply with "What's the subject". Usually the distracting emails like this vanish....

Hey Matt,

Bang on for the fuzzy emails, good stuff!

Regarding acronyms: as a consultant, I'm a big fan of clear concise subject lines but I just can't get behind the idea of using acronyms for this. Perhaps its because I work across a variety of clients where each has their own set of acronyms. Then again, it might be because my experience in project management has led me to believe the number one cause of project failure is communication. Either way, expecting others to understand my acronym system; regardless of how "standardized" it is, just doesn't seem realistic. In the list above, the only one I use with a client is FYI, but that one has made it into common spoken language as well.

In addition to the clarity factor a person must be mindful that emails seem to be gaining acceptance as a sign-off and therefore may be kept as project articles. This creates a need for them to be just as clear as a formally written document.

Personal example: in my notes, I shorthand Follow Up with FU... I recommend never escalating an email by simply hitting forward and FU... I now use f/u and keep it to myself.

I can see these working well within a team environment where you're working with the same people or with people who all have the same environment/context (i.e. everyone's from NASA), but otherwise I'd be vary cautious about it.

I suppose its a case of knowing your audience.

The biggest efficiency factor I can think of, to ensure people are reading the right emails and not missing parts of them is to simply keep one email related to one topic. If you need Bob to answer a question regarding Project X and have a status update for Bob for Project Y; send Bob two emails.


January 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Kyle

While the acronyms are a clever idea, I'm not sure they will catch on any time soon. There are just too many, and too many people are not aware of their existence.

Hacks I use?

(1) When the subject line is blank, I fill it in when I reply.

(2) When the subject has morphed, I affix -> plus the new subject, so that:
"Your report" turns into "Your report -> meeting next week"

(3) I use textexpander and expand lots of shortcuts for commonly used phases like "Thanks in advance." "Please let me know if you have any questions or comments." etc.

January 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDon Schaffner

I think I understand. Let me re-state: If you initiated the thread, then you clarify by asking a 0/1 question, like... "Do you want to talk by phone?" If it's started by someone else, you ask about the potential meeting's agenda?

Thanks for your comment, Alik.

February 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

As usual, excellent point, Doug. Thank you. If these aren't part of the culture we work in, what ways do you suggest to add these in as improvements? If you're a leader then initiating change seems more straightforward than "in the ranks" productivity enthusiasts...

Overall seems like our language around communication hasn't caught up with our tools. That's combined with our overloading of email with different uses, of course.

February 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hi Don.

acronyms ... clever idea ... too many ... people are not aware of their existence.

Good points. In my previous life as a research programmer, I learned to beware clever code. I should watch clever non-computer hacks too, I suppose...

Amazingly, I found no [ industry standards | http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla%3Aen-US%3Aofficial&hs=4Y4&q=industry+standard+email+subject+lines+-marketing&btnG=Search ] for crafting effective subject lines. There are plenty of guidelines, but that's all. I wonder what equivalent usage conventions there are outside of email. Clearly our tools don't enforce them, though I know of add-ons that try to do this ( [ Sally McGhee`s | http://www.mcgheeproductivity.com/products/home.php?cat=3 ] comes to mind ). Again, there'd have to be a significant buy-in. Is everyone waiting for the next generation of more structured post-email communication tools?

A while back I had a project idea for starting a standards movement for just this. It was a simple web site explaining the conventions, combined with a hyper-linked signature explaining acronym uses. Decided to drop it, though.

fill in blank subject line

This is good, and I do it myself, but what % of messages do you get with no subjects? I get very few, and they're mainly by inexperienced folks like my mom. Though I will say I have an acquaintance in a large electronics company WHO USED ALL CAPS FOR HIS MESSAGES. He stopped that, eventually. (I didn't say anything - someone else must have mentioned it. :-)

subject morph ... I affix -> plus the new subject

Me too, though I do the opposite: I prepend the new subject so they see it first. The advantage of your approach is that it will sort together with the old subject's messages, though I wonder if any change in the subject throws off most thread sort routines... (Mine: I use "was" plus parens, i.e., "Your report" turns into "meeting next week (was: Your report)" Interesting!

textexpander and expand lots of shortcuts

I love [ TextExpander | http://www.smileonmymac.com/TextExpander/index.html ]! I have a couple of dozen of these, and use them many times a day, including,

Thanks very much for writing! :-)

February 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Personally I would first of all add this contacts information to my addressbook and write something in the contactlog of this person of what was last said. Then depending on what I want out of this call :

1. Build this to be a new friend, new customer
- In a relative good future distance add an entry in my calendar to call the person regarding a specific subject

2. I know that in the following time something might show up that will make a good topic
- Add a card in my Tickler in a relative good future to remind me to think about this person again

3. This could just be a good contact to have even though we do not have too much in common
- Just leave it in the addressbook

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I like your clean break-down of types of personal follow-up, Anonymous. Thank you.

February 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I get emails that say something such as "thank you for your order", or Please confirm your subscription". At first, I rack my brain trying to remember if I ordered something that I forgot about. I might give it a couple of days. If it still doesn't ring a bell, I delete it.

In your example, I would delete it immediately, assuming it was spam and might contain a virus if opened. I figure, if it's legitimate, whoever it is will contact you again at some point.

February 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharly

Hi Charly,

> "thank you for your order", "Please confirm your subscription"

Interesting! If they're not SPAM, you'd expect them to list your order's details. Maybe the sender's address could tell you. Also, I wonder if checking your Waiting For entries would help. Then again, if the order went through you'd have checked them off. Curious.

> In your example, I would delete it immediately, assuming it was spam and might contain a virus if opened. I figure, if it's legitimate, whoever it is will contact you again at some point.

This sounds like a good strategy as long as you really don't mind never talking again.

Thanks for your comment!

February 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Good question on how to add these in...

By and large, I think most people struggle with email management and jumping to a point where everyone is agreeing on acronyms may be a step or two ahead of the curve. I'm a fan of small, incremental steps and I'd probably look towards more easily graspable steps.

One suggestion would be around how to use the priority setting (not just High Priority = important - be reasonably explicit on when to use them). The second part of this is to educate people on how to respond to each priority so that people see gains. In handling people who always use high priority, I typically explain to them why they are not and if they continue, let them know I will set a filter to auto-prioritize all of their email and as a result, real high-priorities won't be noted as such (think boy who cried wolf). Of course, I in turn filter who I take this measure with and have only had to do it a couple of times.

Beyond that, I'd simply recommend introducing small changes and gauging how they work. At the end of the day, not everyone is going to be concerned with hyper-efficiency and once that threshold is reached, the effort to overcome it may never be worth the gains.

One challenge I see around email education in general is that it requires people admit they need the help; and while people will almost brag about the backlog of emails they've got, they won't typically admit they don't know how to use email (similar to recommending 10 days to faster reading or the guide to your well read life and people assuming they know how to read).

February 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Kyle

Great points, Doug. I suspect some folks would find that a "filter warning" like you suggest requires some courage. (Side note: In workshops I share that, yes, I asked my mom not to send those FWD: FWD: FWD: ... emails. I said that if she actually types something for me, then I'd love to get it. Otherwise, please don't share. Worked wonders! My brother and wife did not do this, and they frequently complain about junk emails from her :-)

February 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

This is similar with what David Allen calls "open-loops". But since they don't require more than one action (or any action) they are still not a project. They just linger on your mind for no specific reason.

It's difficult to manage these. I think it's easier to prevent them. Give the person some concrete options from which to choose when responding.

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDanGTD

I find, that in order to avoid such emails, it can be helpful to create a web-based email form that directs the sender to enter the specific and useful information to you. For example: how to contact, when to contact, contact name, and key questions to answer for the contact.

There are simple CGI / PERL scripts that allow you to have this functionality on your website. An easy to implement & free example of such a script is called "FormMail."

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBen Weller

Let me help to clarify here, Dan.

"open-loops": in-progress commitments, to use Allen's language. Source of mental stress unless mind experiences them as complete

> difficult to manage; easier to prevent. Give concrete options from which to choose

Quite! Right in line with the other comments.

Yummy topic.

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hi Ben. Thanks for the interesting point. I'm having trouble seeing how it could be specific enough to be helpful, but still general enough to handle these kinds of random-seeming emails. If there's a clear pattern, say if you're in product support, then I can see it helping.

February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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