A couple years ago, I learned the best way to keep my email account near inbox zero.
The secret is to not look at my iPhone or open Gmail unless I can do something right then and there with every unread email.
What this means in practice is that I’ll be standing in an elevator and I’ll look at my mail app and do one of three things with every unread email I have at that moment.
- Fire off a super quick, one or two sentence response right then and there. (5% of emails)
- Write a full, thoughtful response because the email is from an extremely important sender. (1% of emails)
- Archive the email, still unread. (74% of emails)
- Or, if the email requires a more thoughtful response, mark it read and then flag it. (20% of emails)
Usually it takes me at least a day or two — and sometimes a week or more — to get to all my flagged emails and give them the responses they deserve.
My point is to say that most of the of the time, reaching me by email is a slow way to get a response from me.
Even if you are someone that I think is somewhat important, sending a message that I have deemed important to respond to, I will not get to you for at least two days.
That’s surprisingly long period of time, considering that email is technically an instant communication. It turns out delivery speed is no longer the rate limiter on how fast a certain type of communication gets a response.
Sometimes I worry that because email is instant, I’m angering people when I don’t respond instantly.
What would be handy is for there to be a new, broad understanding of how we should all reach other when we need responses within a certain amount of time.
We need new rules on when you should text, when you should call, when you should email.
The good news is that a consultant named Cyrus Stoller has come up with some.
On his blog, Stoller says that because everyone has smartphones now, we all need to start using multiple channels to reach other instead of just email or phone.
He says that if you want a response from him in…
…30 minutes, you should call him. “This gives you an opportunity to make sure I understand exactly what you need done and you know exactly when I received your request. If you don’t feel comfortable interrupting what I’m doing to make a request to me directly then it probably isn’t that urgent and can wait a little while.”
…two hours, you should text him. “This gives me time to gracefully wind down what I’m doing and call you back.”
…sometime today, you should IM him. “Instant message works well for slightly more asynchronous communication. You’re interested in getting a short response promptly, but it doesn’t need to be right away. This is less disruptive than calling or texting. This works well when you need to find out a concrete piece of information before you can proceed.”
…a day or later, email him. “Most people I know feel like they have too many emails to deal with. Think twice about whether email is the right way to communicate your information. You should expect email threads to be truly asynchronous.”
So. Those are the new rules. Everyone good?
Oisín Hurley, a reader of Stoller’s blog and the founder of a startup called Converser.io, created a useful image the rest of us can use for reference to remember the new rules.
Here you go: