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Stop Apologizing For The Delayed Response

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Stop Apologizing For The Delayed Response

How many times did you write a version of that — “Sorry for the delayed response!” — just today?

 In the piece, which was published by the online literary magazine Catapult, author Melissa Febos writes about the many and varied ways our behavior around email is making our lives worse. The essay is wide-ranging, but what most captured my attention was this line: “Stop apologizing for taking a reasonable length of time to respond to an email.”

Feels wishes that I, and you, and all of us together, would kindly knock this off. “You are ruining it for the rest of us (and yourself) by reinforcing the increasingly accepted expectation of immediate response,” she writes. “A week seems like a perfectly reasonable length of time to take. Or longer.” I have emails in my inbox that may not require immediate action, but they do at least demand very quick action, or else interviews wouldn’t get scheduled and freelancers wouldn’t get paid. But it’s not always easy to tell which ones need my attention now, and which ones could wait a day or two.

And that, to me, speaks to the real problem with replying to email: When … are you supposed to reply? Sometimes people make this clear, explicitly noting that they need an answer by the end of the day, or week, or whatever. But this doesn’t happen as often as it should, and this lack of clarity seems to be driving the behavioral economist Dan Ariely a bit bonkers these days. “When people send an email we’re not really good at conveying our intentions,” said Ariely recently on the Bloomberg podcast Game Plan. And so he sought to change that. Now, if you email Ariely (and he estimates he gets around 300 emails a day), you will receive in return a form asking you the specifics of your request, including this very important but often overlooked detail: When do you need a reply?

Because part of the problem with email, as Joe Pinsker recently pointed out in The Atlantic, is that it can feel like you’re supposed to answer immediately; one studyfound that, on average, people tend to respond to an email notification within six seconds. But how many people who email you are truly expecting an instant reply? On that Bloomberg podcast, Ariely asked the two hosts to guess how many people who filled out his email form required an answer right away. “Ten percent,” guessed one. “I have to go high now — 35 percent,” said the other. The actual answer: 2 percent.

“With email, we treat everything as if we’re in a hurry,” Ariely continued. “There’s a huge difference between important and urgent. This is no disrespect to my mother, but everything she writes me is important — nothing has yet been urgent.” On the podcast, Ariely touched on the same wasting your time and talents themes that Febos does in her essay:

A techy way to differentiate between the urgent and the important may very well be a new app Ariely helped develop called Filtr, which lets users assign different levels of urgency to each of their contacts. You can choose to see emails from your boss or your pals or your partner immediately, whereas lower-priority notes stay hidden until later.

When sending email, start including a line that clearly tells the recipient when (if?) you need a reply. And when replying to an email that doesn’t specify a response time, either use your best judgment, or write back quickly and ask. No apologies necessary.

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