“Adulthood is emailing ‘sorry for the delayed response!’ back and forth until one of you dies,” writer Marissa Miller tweeted in February of last year. People liked this tweet. Nearly 40,000 people liked this tweet, in fact, and more than 26,000 retweeted it. Miller told me recently that she still gets around 100 notifications every day from people responding to that 14-month-old passing thought, which she initially saved to her drafts folder because she thought it was “a little too niche.”
I was thinking about that tweet as I read an essay with an irresistible (to me) headline: “Do You Want to Be Known for Your Writing, or for Your Swift Email Responses?” Click. In the piece, which was published by the online literary magazine Catapult, author Melissa Febos writes about the many and varied ways our behavior around email is making our lives worse. The essay is wide-ranging, but what most captured my attention was this line: “Stop apologizing for taking a reasonable length of time to respond to an email.”
How many times did you write a version of that — “Sorry for the delayed response!” — just today? I’ve written it twice: One was in response to an email sent yesterday afternoon, the other in response to one sent two days ago. Febos wishes that I, and you, and all of us together, would kindly knock this off. “You are ruining it for the rest of us (and yourself) by reinforcing the increasingly accepted expectation of immediate response,” she writes. “A week seems like a perfectly reasonable length of time to take. Or longer.” I paused at that line. I have emails in my inbox that may not require immediate action, but they do at least demand very quick action, or else interviews wouldn’t get scheduled and freelancers wouldn’t get paid. But it’s not always easy to tell which ones need my attention now, and which ones could wait a day or two.
And that, to me, speaks to the real problem with replying to email: When … are you supposed to reply? Sometimes people make this clear, explicitly noting that they need an answer by the end of the day, or week, or whatever. But this doesn’t happen as often as it should, and this lack of clarity seems to be driving the behavioral economist Dan Ariely a bit bonkers these days. “When people send an email we’re not really good at conveying our intentions,” said Ariely recently on the Bloomberg podcast Game Plan. And so he sought to change that. Now, if you email Ariely (and he estimates he gets around 300 emails a day), you will receive in return a form asking you the specifics of your request, including this very important but often overlooked detail: When do you need a reply?
Because part of the problem with email, as Joe Pinsker recently pointed out in The Atlantic, is that it can feel like you’re supposed to answer immediately; one study found that, on average, people tend to respond to an email notification within six seconds. But how many people who email you are truly expecting an instant reply? On that Bloomberg podcast, Ariely asked the two hosts to guess how many people who filled out his email form required an answer right away. “Ten percent,” guessed one. “I have to go high now — 35 percent,” said the other. The actual answer: 2 percent.
“With email, we treat everything as if we’re in a hurry,” Ariely continued. “There’s a huge difference between important and urgent. This is no disrespect to my mother, but everything she writes me is important — nothing has yet been urgent.” On the podcast, Ariely touched on the same wasting your time and talents themes that Febos does in her essay:
Think about something like writing a book. … [An] email comes and now the question is, “Which one takes priority? The book or email?” … There is a beautiful term called structured procrastination, the feeling that we make progress, even if all we’re doing is making to do lists and crossing them off, or deleting emails that nobody should have sent us from the beginning. But it gives us this sense of progress. Whereas writing a book does not give you the same sense of progress, because maybe you worked the whole day to try and explain some topic and at the end of the day you decide you didn’t do a good job and you have to start again tomorrow. …. We get the sense of progress from all of these emails and to do lists and things like that — but it’s not the real progress. I mean, how many people are going to die happy knowing they got to inbox zero 721 days of their life?
Or, as Febos more succinctly phrased it: “Do not die of email.”
A techy way to differentiate between the urgent and the important may very well be a new app Ariely helped develop called Filtr, which lets users assign different levels of urgency to each of their contacts. You can choose to see emails from your boss or your pals or your partner immediately, whereas lower-priority notes stay hidden until later. This, unfortunately, is of very little use to me, as I removed the mail app from my phone ages ago, and Filtr doesn’t appear to work for desktop. So for us non-techy people, a plea — no, two pleas: When sending email, start including a line that clearly tells the recipient when (if?) you need a reply. And when replying to an email that doesn’t specify a response time, either use your best judgment, or write back quickly and ask. No apologies necessary.
Thank you, and I hope you’re well.