Responding to e-mails

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.

Jeffrey Zaslow claims you are your inbox, but the folks at 43 folders, who were consulted for the article, aren’t entirely on board with the thesis.

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.


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  1. Dan, This is yet another way we’re similar. You’ve pretty much described me. The only exception (which you don’t have to deal with) is with girls. My initial (and I’ll add professional) reaction is to reply promptly, but that unfortunately seems to be improper.

    Comment by Cameron on December 4, 2006 @ 9:40 am
  2. Cameron: Before I was married, I dealt with same problem and I agree it can be considered improper by some. Immediate responses are akin to answering the phone on the first ring – it makes you seem too anxious.

    Comment by dan on December 4, 2006 @ 10:56 am
  3. Oh my god, I could have written the first three paragraphs. I am also a fast replyer, and if something is long and requires more time than I have time to devote when I first see it, I leave it in my inbox and it nags me for weeks and even months.

    Comment by Meredith on December 12, 2006 @ 12:03 pm
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