Floating in that semi-euphoric state between sleep and the 5:00 a.m. alarm, I pondered the day ahead. The bedroom was bathed in darkness, the dogs snored softly in their beds. A soft breeze blew through the curtains, carrying a hint of the pre-dawn chill. The stillness was just enough to tease me back toward sleep.

Then my phone buzzed. It buzzed again. Then a third time. Immediately awake and alert, I reached for my phone. It had to be important. It was too early for it to be anything else. My thoughts raced at the possibilities. I sat up quickly and pressed the email application on my phone, then scrolled through the new messages. No emergencies. Just routine email from someone who decided that it was a good idea to clean out their inbox at a quarter to five in the morning.

Who does that?


In a world where we’re inundated with information to the point of overload, email is just one more stream of data we have to manage. How you manage email says a lot about you. How you lead. How you think. How you function. In some ways, your inbox is a window to your soul, a mirror that reflects the psychology that drives you, for good or bad.

As a habitual checklist person, I manage my inbox like a to-do list, attacking tasks methodically where I can and setting a deliberate timetable for others. Long ago, I set my inbox limit to 50 messages. Email related to ongoing projects and initiatives will naturally spend more time in the inbox; quick-turn tasks and routine message traffic typically will be gone within 24 hours.

This all sounds manageable, but spread that across four accounts – work, personal, social media based, and freelancing – and the email can stack up quickly. Nevertheless, I do my best to not make anyone wait longer than 24 hours for a response, even if that response is, I’ll loop back on this later. Do I ever miss a message? Forget to loop back on something? Sure. As much as we try, we’re going to miss a few emails along the way.


But as much of an abyss as the inbox can become, the personal psychology of email is far more telling. Most of us do our best to manage the chaos. We try to be responsive – in an era of digital communication, that’s a virtue, after all. But there are those who make it that much harder on the rest of us, whose definition of responsiveness is maddening in one way or another.

So, what does your email say about you? Let’s start from the top.

1. You don’t respect others.

There are times when emailing after hours or on the weekends is a necessity. A pressing issue that requires immediate attention or something so important that it can’t wait. But if you’re communicating routine information during those off hours, it conveys a false sense of urgency and a lack of respect for others.

2. You don’t know the difference between an email and a meeting.

You know that cliché about attending meetings that could have been an email? It works both ways. Don’t subject others to lengthy, rambling diatribes. If you really want to talk at length about issues, organize a meeting. Nobody wants to receive an email that could have been a meeting.

3. You are careless.

Mistakes happen – we’re all human. That said, turn on your spelling/grammar checker. Take a few minutes to re-read your email word-for-word before hitting send. In a professional or even personal setting, habitual mistakes make can you look careless (at best) or half-illiterate (at worst).

4. You are offensive.

Something like 70% of how we communicate is done through facial expressions and body language. So, when you feel the need to slip a little humor into your email, keep that in mind. That missing context can create a lot of uncomfortable – and often offensive – interpretations. If you absolutely have to be the office comedian, do it in person.

5. You are volatile.

Email is no different than any other form of communication when it comes to emotion. If you’re angry, upset, or otherwise compromised emotionally, step away from the keyboard. Don’t hit send. Give yourself the time and space to find some calm.

6. You are rude.

If there’s one sacred commandment to email, it’s to be polite to a fault. Don’t be an ass. There’s no need to be rude. If that’s your natural state of being, you’re going to have a lot of unpleasant encounters in life. Remember what your grandma said: “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

7. You fill everyone’s inbox for no reason.

Reply All. It’s not uncommon to receive an email from the boss that requires an acknowledgement. Don’t hit reply all with your one-word response. Everyone’s inbox is already full; don’t make it worse. In the same vein, avoid hitting reply all unless the situation absolutely dictates a group response. Nobody likes a reply all rant.

8. You have an agenda or you are clueless.

The CC-Line. Sending an email is kind of a need to know If you routinely add others on the cc-line of your messages that don’t need to know, it makes people question your intent. Do you have your own agenda? Are you sending a message? What are you up to? There is a corollary to this one: avoid BCC unless you absolutely know your email won’t end up being forwarded elsewhere. At the end of the day, email is like a boomerang. It will come back, it’s just a matter of when and from what direction.

Bonus Round: The Forwarding Email Chain

A final thought, something that doesn’t happen often, but when it does you usually remember it. When you forward an email, especially an entire thread, take the time to scroll through the thread before hitting send. Several years ago, I worked for someone who forwarded an email thread from our four-star boss. Within that thread was a discussion of terminating someone who was seen as being a bit out of touch with the times, maybe a little long in the tooth. You can guess where that email eventually landed. On the desk of the individual in question. To call that an awkward and uncomfortable day is an understatement.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.