The Rule states: We write when we can, and we never apologize for how long it's been. Over the years and decades, I've shared The Rule with many friends. I use it still.
We need The Rule now more than ever. But we need to expand it, and tailor it to fit all aspects of our lives -- work, personal, and everything in between.
I'm not writing this because over-apologizing is a pet peeve (although it is). I'm writing this because immediacy is an issue of health and well-being.
Whatever happened to asynchronicity?
Email is asynchronous. Unlike a phone or video call, where all parties must be present at the same time, you write an email when you're available, and the recipient reads and replies when they're available. That's the beauty of email, and the best reason to use it.
It seems that most people have lost touch with this concept.
Depending on the content of any given email, an appropriate time to reply may be later the same day, or the following day, or several days or even weeks away. If the sender needs an answer immediately, they should call, or perhaps put "urgent" or "reply requested asap" in the subject line. Other than that, there should be no pressure to reply in the moment or the hour.
Yet my work inbox is filled with emails in which the sender apologizes for a "delay" of a day or two, or sometimes hours!
Of course, sometimes an apology is called for. Sometimes we've overlooked a deadline, or lost track of an email, inconveniencing someone or causing confusion, and we want to acknowledge that. So sure, occasionally apologies may be fitting.
But most of the time, when someone apologizes for a delay, there is no delay. And every time we do this, every time we apologize for replying the following day or a few days later, we imply -- and we perpetuate the notion -- that we should all reply to email immediately.
These apologies create an expectation. They create urgency that usually doesn't exist.
Let's take personal responsibility for being less responsible
Our current world places huge demands on our lives.
Work, family, friends, social media, activism or volunteering, news stories that are updated in real time. Many people have more than one job. Many people work in industries where they are expected to be always available. And far too many fields have drifted to the must-be-always-available model when that kind of urgency is actually not necessary.
And there are so many channels of communication! Sometimes I know I need to respond to someone and can't remember where I saw their message. Work email? Teams chat? Text on work phone? Text on personal phone? Personal email? Facebook message (from someone who doesn't know or remember that I don't use Messenger)? Chat in a Zoom or Teams meeting? Or was that project that's using Slack, or is it Basecamp? I'm guessing I'm not the only person this happens to.
There are always multiple demands pulling us in multiple directions. And the more we make ourselves always available, the more we feed expectations that we must be always available. Without even being fully aware of it, we may assume that if everyone else is always available, and we're not, we may appear absent, or uncaring -- or left behind. Maybe it will reflect on us poorly at work. Maybe it's FOMO. How many of our friends answer a group email or text an hour later, and apologize for being "late to the party"?
Many of us struggle with focus and live with a constant nagging feeling of being always "behind". And being always available means we are constantly interrupting ourselves.
We're working on project A, then we answer a text from person B, an email from projects C and D, then back to A, then more interruptions from projects S, T, and V, back to A, then a text reply from B. Person G sends a video, and we click. We scroll Facebook for a while, thinking we're taking a mental break, when in reality, we're just further fracturing our focus. What happened to project A, where was I? We feel frazzled, harried. We answer emails without fully reading and digesting them. We apologize to everyone. And on it goes.
At the end of the day, we know we were busy, but wonder if we actually accomplished anything.
There's no shortage of articles online about this, from empty clickbait to thoughtful books such as Cal Newport's Deep Work. (I wrote about Newport's book Digital Minimalism here.) All the writers analyze the same phenomenon and offer practical advice to slow and ultimately stop this runaway treadmill. But in the end, we are the only ones who can stop it in our own lives.
I have little scripts, prepackaged lines I can use to undermine the expectations of immediacy.
While "no is a complete sentence" can be very useful, in most work environments, we are expected to flesh that out a bit. Here are some responses I employ on a regular basis.
"This interests me, but my plate is full right now. Could I touch base with you in September?"
"What's your timeline for this? I can work on it towards the end of next week. If you need it sooner, I will have to pass."
"I can help you with that. Is it urgent? If not, can we talk tomorrow morning?"
"My plate is completely full right now. If this is a priority, I'll need some direction on what to put aside."
"I'd love to, but I'm afraid I don't have time / mental space / bandwidth right now."
Unless there is actual urgency, I use these replies no sooner than the day after I receive an email.
This doesn't mean I work solidly for hours without interruption! Far from it. A big part of my job is supporting staff, so I am constantly being interrupted. When colleagues call (as opposed to emailing) there is usually a good reason, and I must answer. Those are necessary interruptions, and they are frequent. That's why cutting down on the unnecessary interruptions is so important.
Is it urgent? Pick up the phone. If it's emailed, take some time.
The most important thing we can do in many situations is not respond immediately.
Leave the email in your inbox. Let it sit there for a day, or two days, or a week, depending on the context.
If, realistically, it may be a long time before you can deal with a particular email you can always use something like this.
Thanks for your email. Just wanted to let you know I've received your message, and will reply when I can.
Then continue doing what you were doing. And continue doing that as the next email comes in, and the next, and the next.
If you can find a way to work without seeing email notifications, that's the best method of all, then you can set a daily time to go through your emails. Or three daily times. Or whatever works for you. But stop answering immediately and stop apologizing when you don't.
Fuck Inbox Zero
"Inbox Zero" -- keeping your inbox empty or almost empty every day -- is (a) a myth, (b) incredibly inefficient, and (c) totally unnecessary. If I answered every email as it arrived, I would spend my entire day answering emails and never get anything else done. Even Merlin Mann, the person credited with coining the expression "inbox zero", admits that it's no longer viable.
The "productivity experts" at Superhuman advise that every email can be dealt with in one of four ways -- delete, delegate, defer, or do. Hey, doesn't defer mean letting it wait? But even that triage takes time, and to what end? Perhaps there's a reason this "advice" (translation: product marketing) comes from something called Superhuman. We are human. We don't have to be super human.
Signature lines may help
A number of people I know now include expectation re-setting in their signature lines. They have added things like:
I will answer your email in 24-48 hours. If your matter is urgent, please call.
Please note I work part-time and it may take some time to respond. Thank you for your patience.
I've seen people including compassionate responses to other people's self-expectations. These are all about returning to asynchronicity.
If you have received an email from me outside of your normal business hours, please feel no pressure to read or respond until you are working.
I work flexibly and may send emails outside normal working hours. Your immediate response is not expected. Please do not feel any pressure to respond outside of your own work schedule.
Signature blocks may be like signs: no one reads them. But it's worth a try.
I blame texting
I think the shift from email to texting (and other forms of instant messaging) is partly to blame for this perceived urgency. This drift from one technology to another is something I've yielded to out of necessity. But I really, really dislike it.
For one thing, I am a very fast keyboard typist, and using all my ergonomic equipment, I find typing on a keyboard infinitely easier than onscreen typing.
But beyond that, the reason I prefer email is the perceived immediacy of texting. When we receive text messages, we feel compelled to interrupt whatever we're doing to respond. We might decline a phone call and let an email sit, but a text seems to get answered immediately or not at all.
I get it. Email is work-related, news from organizations, customer service replies, and other business-y things. Text is more personal. And for quick questions, brief hellos, and "I'm running late," immediacy is important. But the immediacy of texting has amped up the sense of immediacy for everything else in our lives.
Be the change
We can each do our part in re-setting the expectation of immediacy. Two simple rules could go a long way.
1. Don't reply immediately. Let the email sit in your inbox, at least for one day.
2. When you do reply, don't apologize.