How to Plan Anything by Email Alone — and why it’s Faster

Aside from professional project management, planning and collaborating on personal things – like trips and vacations, family reunions, summer camp options for the kids, or even advice – is best done by email, not specialized collaborative software tools online.

Thousands of SaaS businesses want to convince you to use their system to “share and create”, to “plan and strategize”, or to “post and update” others with whatever you’re working on. Many of them are merely misguided. Some are outright hostile to email.

Alarms are sounded by these businesses that email is an information silo. Never mind that their business is also a silo, just one which they control and with which they can charge you money. They ironically will send you a lot of emails anyway.

Some examples of software businesses that want you to use their platform rather than email: Trello, Microsoft Planner, Wrike, Airtable, Asana, etc.

For something temporal, and for groups of eight people or less, I believe email is superior for planning. Pretty Trello boards may look like you’ve got your act together, but you still have to type it out, get others to agree, and not forget important details. Trello can’t help you think. Even though software like Trello is quite easy, that doesn’t mean its universally understood the way email is. The documentation for Trello still must be read and understood.

For email planning, some like to have a share a document (either online or passed as an attachment). Since the dawn of HTML email (styled email) in the early 1990s, I’ve recommended not attaching a document unless and only if that document must exist in time and space outside the email chain.

For instance, if there is a Word document from the Marketing Department that must be discussed by Engineering and Senior Management, it makes sense to attach it. But if three people must create an itinerary for a customer visit, the drafting and collaboration can all happen via email until such time as it is agreed upon and needs to be published externally to the email thread.

The key is to use your email composing tools (bold, italics, hyperlinks, strike-through, and a dash of color) and a systematic way to keep the details at the forefront and the discussion about those details secondary.

Once a standard is agreed upon, which will likely be easier than convincing everyone to sign up and learn some new web-based platform, you can quickly get to work.

Let’s take a basic example of planning something simple, like a wedding. Let’s assume there are eight key people involved in the planning process: groom, bride, father and mother of the bride and groom, best man, and maid-of-honor.

You break the email down into four sections:

  • Edits
  • Details
  • Invitations
  • Talk/Discussion

Notice the acronym? E.D.I.T. Remember that.

Since I’m using a wedding as an example, I should point out that ‘invitations’ here does not have anything to do with wedding invitations.

Let me explain each section briefly.

Edits are where your latest changes are posted. If you added new information about the flower vendor, if you updated the price of the cake, or if you suggested that Aunt Nancy not sit at the same table as Uncle Jed, this is where you note that.

Some might say, wait a minute… you want me to type out my changes each time? Trust me, there is zero learning curve to typing an email, and you’ll only type your changes if you are the one to make them. Which means (magic sauce here) that people will be less inclined to make willy-nilly changes (as they would on a Google Doc) because of that tiny bit of extra friction. Agreeableness is built into email!

Details are where you store the ‘data’ of your plan. For a wedding, you might have several sections, and it could even be long. Don’t worry! Email has your back and you won’t find yourself jamming it all in. Using solid lines (known as HRs or horizontal rules) is a nice way to break up thing, along with some simple headings. Keep it text-based and keep it simple.

In our example, you might have sections called Attendees, Costs, Bride’s Prep Work, Groom’s Prep Work, Special Duties, Schedule, Reception Plans, Honeymoon, etc. It can be as detailed as you want it to be and anyone on the email thread can add new things as they come to mind. No need to argue over whether it should be a board, a card, a list, etc… just use plain text.

Invitations is where you call out specific people on the thread to ‘task’ them or ‘ask’ them to help out with certain needed changes to the Details section. If you’re the groom, you might ask the mother of the bride to confirm pricing details with the flower shop when they open on Monday, or you might ask your best man to schedule a tuxedo fitting and update the Details section under Groom’s Prep Work.

The key thing about the Invitations section is that it’s the one area each person should pay special attention to when they get a new email on this thread.

Talk/Discussion is just what it sounds like: an area to wax poetically about your musings, thoughts, opinions, edicts, personal challenges, and hopes for the future. If no one reads it, it shouldn’t grossly effect the general plan. Think of Talk/Discussion like the Talk page of a Wiki page, or the back side of a Trello card with everyone’s points, or the comments section of a blog post. It can provide context or interesting side rapport, but it’s not the critical matter.

At this point, some are probably saying, “Genius! But what about a ridiculously long Re: thread after a few weeks?”. So let me put some extra Just Use Email genius on the E.D.I.T. process: Do not Reply To All – or to anyone.

Wha-what??? Yes, it’s true. Instead, you just Ctrl-A (select all) and Ctrl-C (copy) the entire last post, create a new email (Ctrl-N) and Ctrl-V (paste) it all in there, make your changes and send.

For clever email aficionados, you can create a contact group of the wedding planning party so you can just type “Smyth Wed..” and it’ll automatically include all recipients, or…. you can reply-to-all, delete and replace the subject line, delete the body text and re-paste above. Whichever suits you.

For the subject line, I recommend the following: MM-DD-H Smyth Wedding Update. So something like 2023-03-13-7PM Smyth Wedding Update. Each email arrives as a new email, not part of a thread, yet with all the pertinent details. Those who wish to use filters and rules will quickly triple their efficiency, but even those that just let their emails plop into their AOL inbox will not be lost or have any disadvantage.

Another advantage to group email planning is you can send one-off emails for deeper discussion and attach any number of documents. This can also be handy when, for instance, the best man has to begin updating some of the groomsmen on particulars. Just forward them the last email. Or even better, create a new one to the groomsmen and easily cut/paste the relevant portions in it for them. No one wants to be told, “Oh, we’re doing all the planning on platform X and I’m not quite sure how to share it with non-users”. Blah.

One smart thing to do is to ask everyone to include at least one phrase in all wedding planning related emails, e.g., “Smyth Wedding”, even if it’s only between two people of the group, so that those using filters and rules, or even manually moving emails into folders, will have a nice folder of all wedding-related emails. Unlike messaging apps where important details or past discussions can be lost or muddied in the chaos of all our other communication, email is elegant and keeps it all nicely ordered, searchable locally, and is platform agnostic. The bride and groom might one day enjoy re-reading some of the planning emails years later. It’s incredibly simple to run a search on ‘tuxedo’ on their wedding planning folder and instantly see excerpts).

As you read through the above, you might think it requires some kind of “work”. Trust me, the real work is the agreements needed. Email is actually the easiest of any platform out there – and you get to own and control your own data, likely forever.

One thought on “How to Plan Anything by Email Alone — and why it’s Faster”

  1. I’m a little confused about how version control works.
    Same event planning.

    We have details that are part of the EDIT email and personas A, B and C:

    A: sends an email with his vision for the EDIT (first version)

    B: makes adjustments in the Details section

    C: Makes corrections to the Details section

    C : Receives the edits made by B and makes his edits again in response to B’s e-mail.

    So A has to check with the original email (which he sent to B and C) and compare all their edits to see what has been changed, and he has two emails from C.

    Or is it supposed to use color highlighting of the items to be changed until the final version of the Details is agreed upon?

    Something I’m confused about, need an explanatory brigade.

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