Thursday, May 31, 2007

Email Koyaanisqatsi

When someone sends you an email, when should they expect a reply? Within an hour? A day? It is a simple question, but the answer (and you can send them to me via email if you'd like) isn't.

I think most of us try to respond within a business day, and if we get the email early enough, by the close of that day too. It is a pretty good rule of thumb.

But then some of us expect a response even quicker, and get annoyed or impatient of the delay. To me, this represents something out of balance, like some scenes from the movie Koyaanisqatsi. (Little ironies department: I now live about a mile from the former site of Pruitt-Igoe made famous in the movie.)

I was talking to a colleague yesterday about how she often replies to her emails late at night, after her husband has gone to sleep. It made me think about how often I reply to emails in the early morning, before my own wife awakes.

And how many of us can't leave the laptop home when we go on vacation for fear of the massive email pile-up that will await us upon our return? Or who can't help ourselves but "multitask" during meetings and clear our inboxes when we are supposed to be part of the meeting itself?

There are some that are hyperactive email responders, carrying BlackBerries and being reachable 24x7. You know who you are.

Is this healthy? I am beginning to wonder.

The irony is that I have come full circle on email responsiveness. Back in the early days of my own email use, I tried to respond to every email that I received within a few hours. This is the early 1980s, when the Internet was still a DoD science project, and few people had the ability to send messages between corporations, let alone across the world. It was still a novelty then.

In the early 1990s, I had an Internet-reachable email address, actually several. When I started Network Computing magazine, we were one of the first magazines to include email addresses of the authors for each article, which was also novel concept then. Now you can find them for the bylines in my local paper. I was also an early user of the BlackBerry precursor, called Radiomail. I remember one time pulling over at one toll plaza on the Garden State Parkway to answer some emails. A curious cop came over and was wondering what I was doing.

Back when Computer Associates (now called just CA) first implemented their email network, they actually turned the system off for several hours during the workday because they wanted their staff to get work done. This was before various executives were caught cooking the books, so I guess it worked too well. They eventually stopped doing this, and now email is available 24x7, just like everywhere else.

The email landscape sure has changed since then and what was novel is now de rigueur. Today most of us think nothing about emailing people that are halfway around the world, and of course now I get spam in about a dozen different languages, if I could figure out the character sets that come into my inbox.

The trick to being successful with email can be summed up with one word: balance. Or getting back into email balance.

"I do however still get a chuckle by those who complain they can’t get work done at the office, yet are sending personal emails out all day long," says Rich DiGirolamo, who writes a very amusing email newsletter and is a professional keynote speaker. "Some of us make every effort to answer every email within twenty-four hours, but at times we need to prioritize them. Yours just may not be as important to me as you think it is. But it will get answered, I promise."

I think that is a great strategy. I recommend setting aside some time every day to read your emails, and perhaps a separate time to write replies. But don't let it bleed into the entire day.

Maybe we need an email rehab center in Malibu to help those that need to get their lives back into balance.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.