The importance of a good email subject line

Ever since I first read Sally McGhee’s excellent book on productivity Take Back Your Life! (Microsoft Press, 2005) I have been acutely aware of the importance of writing good email subject lines.

The subject line is the message title that appears in your email client before you open the message to read it. To illustrate, here are a few emails that I received about National Youth Choirs of Great Britain-related activities:

My email client shows me who sent the email and the subject line
My email client shows me who sent the email and the subject line

Write the subject line afterwards

McGhee’s advice is to write the subject line after you’ve written your email, as the subject line should summarise what you’ve written.

How many times have you written a subject line, then written the email message, and then had to go back to edit the subject because it now doesn’t match what you actually wrote?

If the subject line is meant to be a summary of what you’ve written, then it makes sense to write it afterwards.

What makes a good email subject line?

McGhee suggests that when writing a good subject line you should make it very clear:

  1. What project or task you are communicating about.
  2. What action is being requested,
  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

So, a subject line of “Website” isn’t really helpful at quickly conveying what is being asked. Which website? What would you like me to do with the website? Is it one that you’d like me to update, or visit, or build? Is there a deadline?

Actions

Something that I love about McGhee’s approach, that I would love to see spread more widely, is her use of action prefixes for email subject lines.

There are four different types of action, McGhee suggests:

  1. Action reqiured (AR)
    The recipient has to complete an action before they can respond.
  2. Response required (RR)
    The recipient needs only to respond. There is no action required.
  3. Read only (RO)
    The recipient needs only read the message. There is no action required, and no need to reply.
  4. For your information (FYI)
    The recipient doesn’t even need to read the message, they simply need to archive the message somewhere as it may be useful later.

McGhee then suggests prefixing the subject line with the initials of the action required. For example,

AR Project board status report required by Monday 9 January 2017

Immediately I know that I need to do something, I know what it relates to (the project board), I know what it is (a status report), and I know when it needs to be completed (Monday 9 January).

More than that, if all my emails were prefixed accordingly, I could then sort my inbox by subject line and see a prioritised list of what I need to do: act on, respond, read, or simply archive.

McGhee also has a neat practice for very short messages: write the whole message in the subject line only, so the recipient doesn’t even have to open the message, and end the message with “EOM” (end of message). For example, if I’m replying to an email trying to fix a date to meet for lunch I could write a subject line: “RO Tuesday at 12:30 is fine EOM”.

Don’t make me think!

We know from numerous studies by the Nielsen-Norman Group that screen users tend to scan rather than read every word.

Usability consultant Steve Krug encouraged digital content authors to write with a user-centred approach. His book title “don’t make me think!” has become a mantra in my team.

A bad example from my web host

I became very aware of the importance of writing good email subjects in the light of these insights these past couple of months as the renewal date for my web hosting approached.

45 days left…

On Monday 28 November I received an email from my web hosting provider telling me that I had “45 days left until service expiration”.

Fine, I thought, I have about six weeks to sort it out. I knew that I wanted to look into moving my website to another host, so pencilled in that period between Christmas and New Year to look into it; my current hosting package expires on 12 January 2017 so that would give me plenty of time.

21 days left…

On Thursday 22 December, I received another email from my web hosting provider: “21 days left until service expiration”.

I glanced at the subject line and read the opening paragraph:

There are 21 days left until the expiration of your [package] Hosting garethjmsaunders.co.uk on Jan 12, 2017.

Great! I still have three weeks to do something.

14 days left… WHAT?!

So, imagine my surprise when six days later I received an email from them with the subject line “Sales Receipt”.

WHAT?!

But my hosting doesn’t expire for another two weeks. Why are they suddenly charging me the best part of £260 now?!

That’s when I read through the rest of the email that I received on 22 December.  Paragraph two:

In order to provide you with a smooth and uninterrupted service, we will renew it automatically on the next bill date – Dec 28, 2016. We will charge you 215.46 GBP (excluding VAT) for the renewal period of 12 months.

I quickly got in touch with their support team, got a refund, and instructed them to cancel my hosting on 12 January.

What would have been a better subject line?

Looking at McGhee’s three tips for what makes a good email subject

  1. What project or task you are communicating about.
  2. What action is being requested,
  3. Identify a due date, if there is one.

we can look at the email subjects I received from my web host, and suggest how this could be improved. The email I received on 22 December read, “21 days left until service expiration”.

What project or task were they communicating about? A service was expiring. No indication which—I actually pay for two services with them. It would have been clearer if they’d indicated which one.

What action was being requested? They were implying that I needed to renew (or at least review) my hosting service.

What was the due date? Well, the subject suggested 21 days, but in actual fact I had only 7 days before something was actioned.

A better subject line would have been:

Action required: 7 days until automatic service renewal for garethjmsaunders.co.uk

That is the action that I am most concerned about: when does the money get transferred out of my bank account.

Conclusion

I will certainly be paying closer attention to emails now, but also more careful about writing meaningful subject lines that better summarise the email message for recipients.

First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish

A book with blank pages lying open on a white background

A few months ago I read this blog post by Marc Laidlaw: “Writing for Half-Life“, in which he talks about working at Valve on the story for the computer game Half-Life (1998).

This paragraph in particular spoke to me:

“The crucial milestone for me was the completion of our first rough mock-up of the entire game—in essence our first rough draft. I knew that once we could move through the maps from beginning to end, without cheating, we would all discover a new vision of the game. Something closer to the final vision. This was something I believed very strongly, based on my experience as a writer. First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish.”

That final sentence “first drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish” is what really stood out. I wrote it down in my to-do app and have referred to it on more than one occasion since then.

It reminds me of a passage from Tom Shippey’s book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century who reveals that this was also Tolkien’s experience while writing The Lord of the Rings:

“Tolkien had no clear plan at all […] It is is an interesting, and for any intending writer of fiction rather an encouraging experience, to read through the selections from Tolkien’s many drafts now published […] and note how long it was before the most obvious and seemingly inevitable decisions were made at all. Tolkien knew, for instance, that Bilbo’s ring now had to be explained and would become important in the story, but he still had no idea of it as the Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring-with-a-capital-letter, so to speak: indeed he remarked at an early stage that it was ‘Not very dangerous’.”

(pp. 52–54)

Tolkien, in many ways, wrote himself into the story and, like the rolling countryside of the Shire around him, the plot began to develop and evolve. It was a gradual revelation to him: some aspects were obvious, others had to be teased out, and there was much revision.

I have found that a very useful thought to hold onto this year, not only while working on writing projects but in life in general. I don’t need to get things right first time. I don’t need to know how it ends, I just have to make a start.

This quotation from Ernest Hemmingway in A Moveable Feast (1964) has also been close to my heart:

“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”

All you have to do is write one true sentence… First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish… Now there is a plan for going forward into 2017: step by step, living forwards, living without fear, open to failure, open to living in the moment.

Who knows where 2017 will take us but I pray that we do it with integrity, with grace, and with compassion.

Team meeting via Google Hangouts

Daily meeting via Google Hangouts
Daily meeting via Google Hangouts

Last week I had to work from home one morning. Our team meets at 09:30 every morning to catch-up. Years ago I suppose I would have had to either phone in or miss it.

We used Google Hangouts to allow my colleague Lewis and I to take part, connecting remotely.

Isn’t the world wide web an amazing thing!

Viewing Trello label titles on cards

UPDATE: Trello now includes this capability ‘out of the box’.

On a desktop or laptop browser, simply click the label colour—it will expand to include the name of the label.


It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Trello.

I use Trello pretty much exclusively on Google Chrome, as there are plenty of plugins written to extend its capabilities; far more than for Firefox, which surprises me a little.

One of my favourites is Scrum for Trello, which allows me to add Agile story points very simply. My new favourite is this: Card Color Titles for Trello.

Default labels

In Trello you may set an unlimited number of labels. Originally, there were only six, organised in the order of the original Apple logo.

Here are the labels that Trello themselves use for their development board.

Trello label names
Trello label names

When applied to cards, the labels appear as coloured bars at the top of each card.

Trello development board with standard labels.
Trello development board with standard labels.

The problem is, and particularly now with unlimited labels, it can be difficult to remember what each colour means—especially if you use different labels on different boards.

Card color titles for Trello

That’s where the Card Color Titles for Trello plugin comes in: it adds the name of the label to the label.

Labels, colours, titles—it all makes sense now
Labels, colours, titles—it all makes sense now

I’ve been using this for the last week and it has been so useful, particularly at work where we have labels for MoSCoW prioritisation. It has made re-ordering cards so much easier and quicker.

It’s definitely an extension to add if you use Trello on Chrome: Card Color Titles for Trello on Chrome web store.

Todoist vs Trello vs Wunderlist for managing small tasks

Since moving from Outlook (Exchange) to eM Client (Google) a few weeks ago I have needed to find a suitable task management application to replace Outlook’s excellent task tool. I’ve found a really nice application in Todoist.

I used Outlook tasks a lot on both my desktop PC and my mobile phone (Windows Mobile then Android), so my requirements were:

  • Must be cloud based.
  • Must sync quickly between mobile and desktop.
  • Must have a native app for both Android and Windows 8.
  • Must be able to handle multiple contexts/projects.
  • Must be affordable.
  • Should have a usable Android widget to both add new tasks and view a particular context/project.

Wunderlist

Wunderlist interface has a brown, wood-effect background with two columns: contexts on the left, tasks on the right.
Wunderlist (Windows 8 modern UI app) is really pretty.

The first application that I consider was Wunderlist which I had trialled a few years ago before moving to Exchange. I thought it was time to give it another go.

I migrated my tasks into Wunderlist and used it for a few days.

I really love the aesthetics of Wunderlist. It looks uncluttered and simple, and I selected a rich wood-effect background to complement the dark grey wood wallpaper both my PC and smartphone.

Following the GTD methodology, I was able to create multiple contexts (e.g. computer, desk, finance, garden, home, shopping, etc.). Moving tasks from one context to another is as simple as dragging and dropping tasks. Further details can be added to individual tasks (due date, reminders, subtasks and notes).

I really liked the ability to star important or favourite items, and to view all tasks, grouped by context in the order shown on the left-hand sidebar.

Wunderlist was looking promising, and I probably would have continued to use it had it not been for two issues.

The first issue I had was more of a niggle: the Android widget it really fiddly to use. I love that you can scroll left and right between contexts but I found with my not-too-enormous fingers that I had to jab at the screen four or five times to hit the sweet spot before it moved.

The second is a known problem: there are sync issues between Wunderlist 2 and 3. The web interface and Android both use the newer version 3, the Windows 7 application uses version 2. When I used both in conjunction I discovered discrepancies in my data.

I didn’t want to use the Windows 8 modern UI app or have to access my lists through Chrome, and the niggle with the Android widget was enough to get me looking elsewhere.

Trello

Trello uses the model of cards pinned to lists.
Trello uses the model of cards pinned to lists.

I’ve long been a fan of Trello from Fog Creek Software. We use it extensively at work, and I use it to manage all my personal projects. So I quickly migrated my tasks from Wunderlist to Trello and used it for a few days.

As much as I love Trello for managing larger projects I didn’t really warm to it as a simply list/task application.

Contrary to my experience with Wunderlist, I was quite happy to use the web interface but then that’s how I have used it for the last few years. The Android app is great and improves with each release.

The Android widget didn’t give me the information that I needed, though: it isn’t granular enough for my requirements. All it offers is a list of cards assigned to me, optionally grouped by due date. The problem here is that it lists EVERY single card assigned to me, starting with those cards that are dated in the past. Right now that is 461 cards. All I wanted to see was all the cards within a particular board, or even better within a particular list on one particular board.

Todoist

Todoist interface has two columns: list of contexts or projects on the left, checkbox list of tasks within that project on the right.
Todoist has a very clean interface.

That was when I discovered Todoist which appears to be available for just about everything: web, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac OS, web, Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail and Postbox. I’d love to see a plugin for eM Client—that would make my productivity life complete!

Todoist has a very minimalist and uncluttered look. On the left are your contexts, which Todoist calls Projects. It also offers labels and filters, but I don’t use either.

For the third time in a week I migrated all my tasks to yet another application. But this time they’ve stayed there… the ones that I’ve not checked off.

Todoist has met all my requirements. It is cloud-based, the Windows and Android apps work beautifully, I can add multiple contexts/projects, can easily drag and drop items from one list to another.

The Android widget does exactly what I need as doesn’t suffer from the same navigation issues that I experienced with Wunderlist. I’ve found that I use that a lot now, and the big plus (+) in the top-right corner of the widget allows me to add tasks quickly to any of my existing lists, and assign a due date too if I need.

The only thing that I miss from Wunderlist is the ability to view all tasks in one long list, [see correction below] but something that I found myself using much more than I ever did with Wunderlist is scheduling tasks. This is probably because Todoist offers two new views: ‘Today‘ and ‘Next 7 days’. (A perfect example of how user interfaces can affect user behaviour.)

CORRECTION: I’ve discovered a “View all” option listed under Filters. This lists all tasks by project. I wish there was a shortcut for this at the top of the application.

What is quite fun too is that Todoist shows your productivity trend and gives you points (which it calls ‘Todoist Karma‘), which I guess is there to help motivate you.

Graph and bar chart showing my productivity trend for the last seven days.
My productivity trend for the last seven days.

When you tick off items your points go up, when you don’t your points down.

I’ll definitely be sticking with Todoist for the foreseeable future, and I may even buy the upgrade to Todoist Premium which is a snip at GBP £18.00 per year, which gives you more project and label colours, task notes and file uploads, reminders, iCalendar feeds, etc.