I got this reply from a Principal Center Professional Member this week

"Just a question: Do you answer all of your emails personally? If so, I am very impressed!"

I do, but there's no need to be impressed.

It's just a straightforward application of the High Performance Triangle:

  • Strategy: Keep replies short, use stock phrases, and know when not to use email
  • Tools: TextExpander (more on this below); the phone
  • Habits: Inbox Zero; saving stock phrases

You probably answer most of your own email too, but chances are good that it takes more time than you'd like.

So I want to present you with a mini-challenge, to help you use email more effectively as a communication tool, while fitting it into less of your day.

To "sign up" for this challenge, just read on and leave a comment below. We're keeping it very simple.

An Email Response Mini-Challenge

  • Try to go a day without sending any emails longer than 5 sentences 
  • Try to use no more than 20 different sentences, total (like Dr. Seuss did in writing Green Eggs and Ham with only 50 different words)
  • Save all of these sentences that you use for the day in a document

Too often, we try to use email for purposes it's not great for. There are some conversations that simply need to take place over the phone or face-to-face. No amount of wordsmithing an email can substitute for a real person-to-person voice conversation. 

And even when email is a great communication medium for the job, one message can't do everything. We aren't being considerate of the reader when we send messages that:

  • Are far too long to be comprehended easily
  • Contain multiple action items or questions
  • Contain unfinished thinking...and the expectation that the reader will do the rest for us

If you're writing in your diary, ramble on all you want, but if you're communicating, clarity is key. Clarity facilitates brevity, and vice-versa.

So if you want to ensure that you're being clear, hold yourself accountable for being brief.

If you want to go all-in on this idea, you can do what my friend Larry Fliegelman does and add a five.sentenc.es footer below your email signature:

Q: Why is this email five sentences or less?

A: Because brevity is the soul of wit. http://five.sentenc.es

If you need more space, send a separate email—it'll make replying easier for your recipient. Even better—talk in person if you can't cover the issue in five sentences.

Now, how can you crank out those five sentences even faster, without sacrificing clarity?

Stock Phrases

Have you ever noticed that the older we get, the more we tend to use the same words and phrases over and over again? I realized I was doing this, at the ripe old age of 27, when I heard 5th graders repeating things I said on the playground—in a good-natured mocking tone, of course:

"OK, everybody, time to line up. All right, here we go, har har har..."

I'm pretty sure I didn't actually say "har har har," but even as a first-year principal, I had already established enough of a pattern that kids could joke about it.

We might think we're going around spouting unique gems of wisdom, but 90% of the time, we're saying the same things we always say—because they're relevant to the situation.

Of course, we can craft new phrases whenever we'd like.

But it's much easier, cognitively, to recognize a situation and retrieve the relevant response.

Here are some stock phrases I use frequently—not because I don't mean them or because I'm insincere, but because I've already decided how I want to express these ideas, and there's no reason to start from scratch:

Thanks for writing.

Let me know if I can be of assistance at any time.

Could we set up a quick phone call to talk about this?

Let's talk about this in personstop by when you get a chance.

Sounds good!

Let's put that on the agenda for our next meeting.

See you then!

Talk to you soon.

Let me know how it goes, and let me know if you need anything.

Thanks for letting me know about this situation.

I share your concern about this, and am committed to addressing it

Feel free to borrow from my list, but you'll no doubt come up with your own list very quickly.

A quick word on objections: many people resist this strategy because it seems insincere to re-use whole sentences.

I disagree: you're already doing this—just not on purpose.

See if you can answer all of your email for two days with just 20 phrases. As you write, save these phrases to a document, or copy and paste if you're re-using a phrase.

Your Challenge Starts Now

In the comment box below this article, share a stock phrase or two.

Then, strive to answer all of your email for the next 48 hours by:

  • Limiting all outgoing messages to 5 sentences or less 
  • Using no more than 20 different sentences, total, in all of your messages
  • Saving all of these sentences in a document

Give it a try, then come back and leave a 2nd comment and share how it went. If you leave an initial comment, I'll reply personally (remember how I'm good at that? :)) so you remember to report back. 

Going Further

I've been building this habit for a long time, and I personally don't save my stock phrases in a document; I save them in an app called TextExpander, which speeds up my typing dramatically.

TextExpander can be a bit intimidating to set up, which is why the challenge above suggests just keeping a document open on your computer as you write.

But when you're ready, TextExpander is amazing. According to my stats, it's saving more several hours a month—time I'd otherwise just be typing, instead of thinking and getting other work done. It has helped me so much that we have a full course on it in our Members' Dashboard.

 You can sign up any time to get full access to my best strategies, detailed video tutorials on the tools I use, and (of course) how to develop habits for high performance in the work of school leadership.

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  1. E-mail consumes my work, gives a feeling of inadequacy when I am unable to respond. I think this is a strategy I must try. That was less than five sentences.

  2. I’d love to hear more about that the next time we meet.

    Thanks for sharing. I’m glad to hear things are going well.

    Glad I could help. Let me know if you would like to discuss further.

    Sounds great! I’d love to see the final product.

    Awesome! Let me know when the students are performing.

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