8 ways to beat the urgency trap in online communications

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In a thoughtful post about The Pitfalls of social media, Aleksandr Voinov writes

Social Media exerts pressure on us to do things immediately and respond to everything immediately. I’m not sure about you, but sometimes I like to think things through and discuss it with other people before I respond. Your Twitter and Facebook accounts make this almost impossible. Basically, people can easily bully you into responding AT ONCE.

The temporal pressure Voinov is describing is the same pressure that Sherry Turkle worries about in Alone Together. She argues that

[I]n the technology-induced pressure for volume and velocity, we confront a paradox. We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted. As we communicate in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses, we don’t allow sufficient space to consider complicated problems.

The pace of online communications cuts both ways, of course. One of the thrills of online communications is its efficiency — look at how quickly Facebook lets you tell all your friends about your new baby, compared to reaching them one-on-one! — even if that efficiency has its costs (like hearing their joyful congratulations). There’s a charm to the volley of IM or texting, which combines the immediacy of real-time communications with the archival value of transcription. And one of the delights of email in particular (as opposed to a real-time phone call) is that you can respond when it’s convenient for you, rather than being at the mercy of your caller.

But Voinov and Turkle are right in noting that the pace of online communications exacts a toll, particularly now that so many of us have 24/7 Internet access via home connectivity, smartphones, laptops and tablets, such that we can in fact be reachable just about any time. How quickly the theoretical ability to reach someone in a pinch, even on a weekend, has turned into an expectation that any e-mail, sent any time, should get a same-day (or even same-hour response). It’s wonderful that I can get other people to reply to my inquiries at any time, but I wish I didn’t have to reply to theirs.

When I recently asked my friends and colleagues for their advice on how to live online, one of the tips that has most disquieted me spoke to this exact conundrum. My friend Leda Dederich posed a tempting but daunting challenge:

Resist the tennis match! Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you have to respond immediately. Invoke your letter writing days. Don’t be afraid of “delayed responses”. Meaningful communication depends on it.

I am deathly afraid of delayed responses. And in musing on Leda’s advice, as I have for the past month, I’ve come up with a range of strategies and practices that can help you mitigate the (often illusory) urgency of online communications, while still allowing you to enjoy the benefits of its rapid pace. Here are 8 ways you can conquer the urgency imperative:

  1. Create an alternate inbox. If you’re obsessed with Inbox Zero, it’s easy to let that obsession drive the pace of your online communications. When I’ve just been through the ordeal of getting my inbox back to empty, I find myself racing to reply to messages just so that I can delete them from my inbox. A better approach is to create a “holding tank”: put messages that you want to reply to later in there, and process them when it makes sense for you. If you feel tempted to reply to a message just to get rid of it, force yourself to
  2. Stick to a schedule. The pace of your online communications is largely determined by the expectations other people have for how quickly you reply…but you get to drive those expectations. Once people discover that you answer every email within 15 minutes, even on a Saturday, I can guarantee you’ll be getting email 7 days a week. Decide on the hours when you’ll be available for each online channel — you may want to keep different hours for email, Facebook, Twitter and IM — and be scrupulous about only replying or sending messages during your designated windows.
  3. Use multiple devices. Separating home and work phones isn’t just for people who work in Blackberry offices but want an iPhone for fun. You might like a two-phone lifestyle if you want to shut off company calls during evenings and weekends. (Just get very clear on your office policy and your boss’ expectations.) Similarly, you may want to have a separate computer (or maybe a tablet) for messing around online after hours, without the temptation of checking (and replying to) email.
  4. Use multiple accounts. I keep my online communications simple by forwarding all of my 87 email addresses to a single Gmail account so that I can check them all in one place. (No, I don’t actually have 87 email addresses…it just feels that way.) But I can still check any one of those accounts separately, so when I go on vacation I make a point of only checking the email address I use for strictly personal correspondence. That way I don’t get a work email and feel anxious about responding to it.
  5. Send later. Just because you like to handle your incoming communications between 7-10 pm doesn’t mean you have to reply to evening communications in real time. It can be very useful to tackle your overflowing inbox after hours, but it defeats the purpose of having catch-up time if people start using those evening hours to send you even more inquiries and tasks. By all means, draft your replies in the evening or on weekends (if that’s when you want to work) but set those messages on a time delay so that they actually send during the window you have scheduled for e-mail. Use the send later feature  in Outlook, a service like LetterMeLater or an extension like Boomerang for Gmail. Use a tool like HootSuite to queue up your tweets and Facebook updates so they go out during your scheduled social media hours. Remember, the point isn’t (just) about limiting when you handle your various inboxes: it’s about setting other people’s expectations for the times of day when they might hear from (or reach) you.
  6. Create exceptions. Maybe you like the idea of limiting your online communications to certain hours of the day, but there’s somebody (or a few somebodies) stopping you. If you’re reading this post and thinking “I don’t want my boss to think she can’t reach me after hours!”, “I can’t turn off my cell phone in case the babysitter calls!” or “But if I turn off IMs, I won’t get my husband’s sexy noon-hour messages!” then you need to create an exception (or two) before you create your new only-sometimes-on communications scheme. Set up a gmail rule that notifies you by SMS when your boss emails, and copies those emails to a separate address (so you can read her email without seeing everything else that is piling up in your inbox over the weekend.) Get a super cheap pre-paid cell phone that you can take with you on date nights, give that number to your sitter, and leave your Blackberry at home. Create a separate IM account that you can stay logged into even when your main Skype, MSN or AIM account is set to “away”, and never miss a dirty message from your sweetie. You may have to do a little extra work to set up new ways for your exceptions to reach you, but it’s worth the effort if it allows you to turn off the rest of the world.
  7. Set a minimum response time. Many of us work in organizations that have a formal or informal standard for the maximum acceptable response time: all client inquiries should get a reply by end of business, all emails should get a reply within 24 hours, all tweets should get an answer within 2 hours. That is good for your business but bad for your sanity. So make sure you also set a minimum response time for each channel: the number of minutes, hours or even days that must elapse before you reply to a message. You can set a different minimum for each channel: maybe Facebook only needs a 3-minute delay (imagine your funny wall comment, take a breath, read the next person’s comment, come back, leave your own comment) but email needs 24 hours (so you ensure that all your emails are sent with the benefit of some level of reflection, and you avoid the problem of email volleyball). You need minimums for your own personal response times (to force yourself to breathe before you answer) and you can also look at setting minimum response times for your department or organization (to encourage more thoughtful responses). And whatever your minimum response time is, make sure you quadruple it for any message that has made you angry (so you reply calmly).
  8. Focus on quality instead of speed. One of the reasons it’s hard to resist the rapid-fire pace of online communications is that we get lots of positive feedback for being quick responders, and negative feedback for being slow. Get back to someone in 10 minutes and they are likely to thank you for it; wait a day to handle that email and you may get a tweet, text or call asking why you haven’t replied. Hearing praise or complaints about how other people handle their online communications (“I love how she always replies to my tweets within 5 minutes” or “He is terrible about replying to email”) further reinforces the sense that we are judged by the speed of our replies. But you can help break that habit by talking about the quality (rather than speed) of other people’s messages, and by focusing on building a reputation for quality in your own. For guidance on how to improve the quality of your messages, check out Stever Bridger’s post about how to write better emails or the Hopkinson Report on how to write great tweets.

Do you have ideas about how to escape the urgency trap in online communications? Tweet your ideas to @awsamuel or leave them in the comments field below….very slowly.

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