Over at the Harvard Busines Review blog—or as we call it, Writing Boots East—HBR editor Sarah Green complains about overeager email responders:
You know who you are. And while this may be hard for you to hear, it needs to be said: you're ruining everything for the rest of us.
Every time you check your email while on vacation you make it just a little bit harder for me not to. Every time you fire off an email at 11pm, you make a capillary explode in one of my eyeballs. Every time you send me an email asking, "Did you get my email?"—especially if you sent said email within the last 24 hours—I drown a kitten in a bag.
She can't keep up with her email, she says. I remember not being able to keep up with my email, back a dozen years ago when I last worked in an office. Assholes were always hanging all over my desk talking to me about a hilarious skit on Saturday Night Live, when I had emails to answer. Green's first problem is that she works in an office, with desk-hanging, Saturday Night Live-regurgitating assholes.
If she worked at home, alone, like me, she would welcome most emails as a brief diversion from the day's heavy tasks, and she would stop seeing them as an add-on to her work, but as part of the flow of the work itself.
Green might concede that point, and she may not have a choice to work at home. But she takes this one further.
And so all of us will have to decide: am I going to be "responsive," rapidly reacting to every email, with my thumbs, choosing to make more work for other people and giving myself the attention span of a goldfish? Or am I going to answer email in my own time, when I can actually provide a thoughtful reply, and either spend my life apologizing or decide it's okay if people think I'm an arrogant so-and-so?
This is the choice. There is no middle ground. At least, as long as the vacation-email-answering, no-punctuating-using, smartphone-sleeping-with people are in charge.
If that describes you, please: Cease. Desist. Get a hobby. And please stop asking if I got your email.
Actually, there is a an email middle ground, and everyone needs to find his or her own. It's taken me almost two decades of emailing, but I think I've found it. Here it is:
1. You send me an email and I'm actually in my office and not under a terrible deadline, I answer it just about immediately. This principle is based on an old rule I heard about office efficiency: Touch a piece of paper only once. If I look at your email and file it away today, and have to deal with it tomorrow—well, I have to deal with it twice. I'd rather deal with it only once. Right now. Very often I get thanked by strangers who write to the editor of Vital Speeches, who seem astonished to receive a reply from me sometimes within 60 seconds of their sending a query. Dorothy could have saved us all a lot of time had she e-mailed firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. No matter what, if I work with you—you're my editor or I'm your writer—you hear back from me within 24 hours, unless I'm on vacation. (And usually much sooner.) My clients have a work flow they need to keep going, and it gets interrupted every time they want to ask the me a quick question and they have to set a project aside and wait for the Hermit Rover to answer. At the very least, they should know that the thing won't be on hold until next Thursday. People who lament that too little business is done face-to-face these days and too much by email, should shut up and answer their email.
3. I purposely do not have email capability on my phone. Henry David Thoreau said a man who checks his mail eagerly hasn't heard from himself in a long time. But he didn't have a smartphone. I'm a writer, OK? A lonely part of me is always aching to hear that someone read something I wrote and that it was the most incredible thing they ever read and wants to pay me to reprint it. So I check my email a lot, just in case. Another part of me—a quivering, cowardly part—is afraid someone will want something from me urgently and, not hearing from me, will get that something from someone else, never to return. So I check my email a lot, just in case. And a third part of me just hates the idea that someone is out there waiting for me, wondering why in the fuck I won't get back to them. So when I leave the house, I do not take with me the temptation to check and answer email.
4. My vacation messages are carefully composed to discourage people from expecting to hear back. They say things like, "I'm out of the country; let's connect when I'm back." "I'm on a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic." An auto-respond I sent out during Leadership Communication Days last year said something like, "I'm in Washington for two days of intensive meetings. Let's connect next week." My publisher Kyle said it sounded like President Obama had called me in for an emergency cabinet session on missiles in Cuba. But often on my rambles, I do wind up getting a half-hour to deal with e-mail at the hotel, and every e-mail I answer then is one I don't have to deal with when I return. And people are excited to get an e-mail from a guy who they just learned was "dealing this week with some heavy action in West Virginia jungle hollers heretofore undiscovered by civilization."
To summarize. If I'm in the office, you'll hear from me right away. If I'm in town, you'll hear from me soon. And if I'm away, you'll hear from me when you hear from me, or you'll hear from me when I'm back.
Sarah Green, it's not easy to come up with a consistent e-mail policy that doesn't involve constant apologies or resigned rudeness. But you can do it.
And Sarah, if you don't mind, please let me know that you got this post. If I don't hear from you, I'll email you tomorrow.