Don’t try this at home: Implementing the e-mail vendetta

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Today I declared war on e-mail. Well, not all e-mail: just the tyrannical assumption that we should all reply to every single message we reply. In a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, I called for a vendetta on the mandatory universal reply.

That means challenging the expectation that every answerable e-mail will get an answer. I suggested that the best way to make that challenge is with an auto-response that warns all e-mail correspondents that you may or may not reply to their messages. And I brilliantly promised to lead the charge.

No sooner did the e-mail go live then I turned to the task of implementing my auto-response. That turned out to be way scarier than I imagined, both because Gmail filters don’t offer all the nuances I’d like in my ideal setup, and because it’s pretty tough to find a nice way to say “I may not read your e-mail”.

After evaluating a bunch of options, I decided to use the Gmail vacation responder instead of Gmail filters. Gmail filters offer the possibility of excluding certain people from getting my auto-response (like my mom, my boss and my assistant); but anyone who does get a “canned response” from Gmail will get it every time they e-mail me. Gmail’s vacation responder, on the other hand, will send my vendetta message no more than once every four days.

Here’s the message that will go to anyone who e-mails me:

SUBJECT: Limited e-mail means I may not reply to the message you sent

Thank you for getting in touch. I’m currently trying out a new approach to e-mail because (like so many people), I’m facing e-mail overload and can no longer review every message I receive. I still check e-mail regularly but if you don’t get a reply within 72 hours please assume that I have had to focus on other professional or personal priorities at this time. If you’re curious about how and why I’m trying out this alternative to the “mandatory reply” (or tempted to try it yourself!), you can find the details in my recent blog post for Harvard Business Review: http://bit.ly/tB41P

I’m tracking how people feel about getting this message so that I can write a follow-up post to help other people who are interested in joining my little e-mail vendetta. If you are up for sharing your reaction I have set up a one-question poll here: http://bit.ly/evendetta

Thanks in advance for your understanding.

Alex

As I got ready to make this auto-responder go live, I got pretty nervous. What if I offend my colleagues, partners or clients? What if I lose media, speaking or business opportunities? What if my mom freaks out over this? The truth is, any of those can — and probably will — happen over time.

But I lose opportunities every day because I’m so overwhelmed by the need to “keep up” with e-mail that I can’t set coherent priorities for where to spend my time and attention. That problem is only going to get worse — for you, me and all of us — unless we start to challenge this assumption that every e-mail needs to get a reply.

I’m lucky that I can take the risk of challenging the tyranny of e-mail. Navigating the complexities of living with technology is the core of my work, so I figure that buys me a little license to experiment. More to the point, I’m fortunate to work at an art university that prizes innovation, led by someone who shares my interest in exploring the frontiers of new media. If your office isn’t the kind of place where the pipes get hand-knitted cosies, you might want to be a little more cautious.

The poll I’ve added to my auto-responder can provide some early indicators of whether it’s safe to proceed. If I get a million pieces of hate mail, or reply to people in 24 hours only to discover that they’ve already moved on, I’ll let you know. And if I hear lots of people share the desire to transform e-mail culture…well, I’ll let you know that too.

Are you going to join the e-mail vendetta? Let me know in the comments below, or by tweeting about it with the hashtag #TB41P

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