The length of an e-mail is directly proportional to the delay until I reply.
I should probably preface that statement by explaining that I’m what’s known as a fast-replyer. If I receive a short e-mail, I’ll often reply within minutes. In fact, a friend once told this to their friend, who didn’t believe them. My friend proceeded to send me an e-mail that said hi. I saw it, thought it odd that it was all they wrote, but replied anyway with a hi of my own and my reputation as a fast replyer remained unscathed.
However, if I get a long e-mail, I can’t just reply in a minute or two. I want to do it justice so I delay responding until I have a larger block of time to devote to it. The problem is that it’s rare to have a 20- or 30-minute block where I have nothing else to do, so whenever I see the e-mail in my inbox, I go through the same thought process of wanting to reply completely but delaying the response. I end up having them sitting in my mailbox for weeks or even months until I finally bite the bullet and respond.
Another observation is that there’s a limit to the quick response. In other words, if two people are both quick replyers, you end up with a feedback loop, with a dozen e-mails zinging back and forth in minutes. They way I handle that is to intentionally wait a day to respond because I know that as soon as I reply, the response will come winging back in minutes. I wonder what Emily Post would say about the etiquette of a timely response.
Although not directly related, Jason Clarke claims that you’re rude if your inbox has more than a screenful of messages and 43 folders has 5 tips for e-mail. A sixth tip I’d add might be implied by the others, but it’s to keep a clean inbox. Gmail makes this easy with archiving. It makes you feel like you’re on top of things when the only e-mails in your inbox are those you are going to reply to or that have some action to perform. It’s like a primitive to-do list (in fact I’ll sometimes e-mail myself tasks because I know I’ll check my e-mail) and it keeps you from losing e-mails you want to respond to among those you’ve already dealt with.
It’s surprising how such a new technology has already become a part of so many people’s lives. They probably already have e-mail support groups for e-mail overload or lack of e-mail syndrome. E-mail is becoming as ubiquitous as the telephone, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re pleased with how you manage it.