Using your e-mail signature to fight inbox overload

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It’s day 5 of my vendetta on mandatory e-mail replies and I’m feeling the pain. On the one hand, I’m as committed as ever to changing the attitude that every e-mail needs a response — an attitude that is totally out-of-step with every other channel of online communications, and a major contributor to personal stress. On the other hand (and perhaps not coincidentally) I can’t come up with a system that challenges the expectation of universal reply without becoming a major spammer myself.

The system I initially set up relied on Gmail’s vacation auto-responder to sending out an announcement of my new e-mail attitude in response to all incoming mail. The vacation auto-responder has the virtue of limiting that message to no more than once every 4 days (so people don’t receive it every time they e-mail me), but the major limitation of sending it to anyone who e-mails me…even if it’s a message that I’d normally filter out altogether, or worse, a reply to an e-mail I sent myself. The latter is absolutely unacceptable: when I set up my “e-mail vacation” message in December, I specifically filtered out anyone who was replying to me because it seems unacceptably obnoxious to send an auto-reply to someone who is replying to me! Unfortunately there is no way of combining the no-more-than-once-every-4-days virtue of the vacation message with the nuanced filtering of Gmail filters + canned responses, so I’ve had to kill the auto-responder strategy.

Instead, I’m taking a two-pronged approach:

1. A new e-mail signature that appends the key implications of my e-mail vendetta to any e-mail I send:

Alexandra Samuel, Ph.D.
Director, Social + Interactive Media Centre, Emily Carr University | Twitter @awsamuel | 604.726.5445

Join the fight against email overload:

• Focus on your priorities; I’ll understand if you don’t reply.
• Sorry if I don’t reply; I’m trying to focus, too.
• If it’s urgent, reach me by Twitter or SMS.

2. An e-mail signature that makes my old auto-responder message readily deployable, so that I can quickly send it in response to any e-mail I’m worried I may not reply to within 72 hours:

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:
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:
Thanks in advance for your understanding.

I’ll let you know how that works out.

3 Comments on this site

  1. Josh Burger

    Quitter… Can you tie it to a rule that fires based on something actually getting to your inbox that doesn’t have a subject line starting with ‘Re: ‘ or something similar?

    That also gets rid of the ‘ones I would have filtered anyway’, which generally don’t warrant a response, or are otherwise part of the standard workflow.

  2. Anonymous

    People have a tendency to send a response email with the same speed that you respond to them. So, by developing an expectation that you respond quickly, you may actually increase the velocity of your email back and forths. Get back to people, but in the proper priority. Otherwise, you’ll be a slave to the ding and the flash.

    I like your vendetta. In this email culture we need to let go of the need to respond to everything. Those one word responses “Thanks” “OK” etc are cluttering inboxes and adding to stress. I think modeling the behavior – not responding immediately, and just plain not responding is part of it.

  3. Monica Seeley

    Email overload is not intractable, far from it. It is all down to prioritising and using the Pareto Law to identify the 20% of email which give you the 80% of the information you really need. Then be brutal and unsubscribe from all the unnecessary stuff and use rules to move the lower priority emails to folders automatically. I have posted about this on my own blog However, you also need to take account of the fact that your inbox is a DNA finger print of you!!.

    As to replying to all emails, Martha is right – don’t waste time on the ‘Thank you’emails. I only send one if the pseron has gone the extra mile.

    Meanwhile, when sending an email which does not need a reply add the words NRE (No Reply Expected) in the subject line.

    Hope this help.

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