Email Overload: How Soon Can I Get Back to You?


You’ve Got Mail!

Anyone with an email account gets flooded with stuff that you simply don’t care to see, don’t need to read, and can’t bear to respond to. That’s a general problem. This problem works out in different ways for different people. Whatever the scenario, it creates a challenge to efficient email management, which is crucial to general time management, which is crucial to personal sanity.

youve_got_mail_ver3What about unsolicited email from unknown parties with legitimate questions you may be able to help with?

This I encounter on a regular basis. There are two basic reasons for this.

First, people learn of my interests and expertise from the books I write and the public speaking I do. I also blog and have a Facebook and Twitter presence. I write and speak about film, books, events, the existence of God, faith and reason, science and religion, kayaking, miracles, epistemology, faith and reason, motorcycling, cultural engagement, politics, and other things that I can think of right now. As you might imagine, there others in the world who have similar interests.

Second, after speaking on a topic and meeting with people to discuss their questions, I will frequently encourage them to contact me for more about a topic, for individual discussion, for reading recommendations, etc. I actually give them my email address. But I always ask them to remind me when and where we met.

My colleagues are good about checking with me before giving out my contact information, so I’m pretty much in the driver’s seat on that one. Still, my email address is pretty easily discoverable. Maybe the FBI can’t figure it out, but I’m sure you can.

Let me shoot straight about a couple of things:

  • I like hearing from people with legitimate questions, perspectives, requests, and invitations to speak.
  • I have to control the flow of input/output so that I can reply to worthy inquiries.

Much of this is up to me. But I have a few suggestions that may help two groups of people: (1) those who face the same challenge, and (2) those trying to get through with legitimate email messages.

Speaking for myself, it’s more likely that I’ll respond, and respond quickly, if:

  1. You write a very specific, descriptive subject heading.
  2. You keep your message brief.
  3. You’re very specific and clear about why I’m the guy you thought you should write.
  4. I remember you from a pervious meeting.
  5. I know in advance that you’ve been referred to me by someone I respect.
  6. You demonstrate that you’ve spent your own valuable time looking elsewhere for help on your topic.
  7. You acknowledge that I may not be able to respond immediately, or even later on.
  8. You’re offering me $10,000, and all expenses paid, to speak for 30 minutes someplace on this planet.

Note: If you’re a past student of mine, you get priority over all other cold messages that come my way. If I know it’s you, you will hear from me!

Here are some question types that dissuade me from responding:

  1. Can you answer a few short questions for me?
  2. Can you recommend a book about . . . ?
  3. I read your book about . . . and I disagree with it. What is your response?
  4. Will you please send me a complimentary copy of your book on . . .?
  5. Will you please help me build my library with books you don’t need anymore?
  6. I’d like to have an email discussion with you about . . . . (Not technically a question.)
  7. Can I drop by your office sometime to chat?
  8. A friend of a friend of a friend of mine suggested that I contact you about . . . . (Especially don’t do this if all of the above “friends” are Facebook friends you’ve never met.)

[I did once get an email message and a phone call from a guy in New Zealand who said he was leaving on a world tour and would like to meet with me when he was in Los Angeles. I said yes. But that guy happened to be Michael Denton, whose book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis I had read. He’d read my book on God and evil and wanted to talk about the problem of evil. We did and we became friends.]

None of this is intended to scare people off from writing me. I really do welcome email that deserves the attention and time a responsible answer would take. And if you’re reading this—and we both know you are—you’re probably one of those people who should feel free to contact me. The guidelines I suggested here will help single you out from the rest of the pack and elicit a timely response.

One More Thing . . . .

I read every comment I get at this website and I respond to virtually every comment. So keep those comments rolling in! If you have other suggestions for quality email communication, how about sharing them here?

Other Sources on This Topic

These guys helped me with ideas for this post:

Adam Grant, “6 Ways to Get Me to Email You Back”

Tim Ferriss, “5 Tips for Emailing Busy People”

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“You’ve Got Friends”—Looking Back on Facebook, 2008


First there was MySpace, appealing to the junior high and high school crowd, and eventually appalling to many parents. Then came Facebook. More mature, and yet somehow safer, Facebook instantly became the venue of preference for college and university students. Until we reach a certain age, we are all fated to assimilate to some degree the technologies of the present. I haven’t reached that age yet, and I candidly acknowledge that my penchant for accommodation is pretty healthy. Still, I have to be convinced of the value of the latest “technological advance” before adding it to my repertoire, which, ironically, becomes more cumbersome with each “improvement.”

In 2008, I succumbed once again to the blandishments of technoverture (i.e., overtures perpetrated by novel technologies). Among them, Facebook. How did this happen?

First, I attended a Web 2.0 faculty workshop at my university. Facebook aficionados extolled its virtues. The single greatest revelation of the occasion was that our students are off email and on Facebook. Why? Because Facebook is better. It turns out that email served the primary value of social networking, until Facebook came along. Then it was bye, bye email. Facebook is a much more powerful tool for social networking. Students knew, of course, that few of their profs were in the loop. It didn’t concern them that by migrating to Facebook, they were effectively unreachable for academic purposes.

This may cause teaching faculty mild consternation. But it shouldn’t. I discovered that my students, and especially my most recent former students, welcomed my presence on Facebook—as opposed to thinking I had invaded their space. My policy on this is evolving, along with the general acceptation and utility of Facebook, but for the time being I don’t initiate Facebook invites to students. I don’t want them ever feeling obligated to regard me, even in the increasingly benign Facebook sense, as a “Friend.” As it happens, the largest constituency of my Friends List is students and former students who have sent me invites.

Second, my older daughter, who is a university student, made a convincing appeal to go on Facebook. She was, I’m proud to say, the first to send me a Facebook Friend Invite.

Once signing on to Facebook, a large question remained: What do I do with it (or on it)? My first impulse was to search for family members, especially my younger sisters (24 years younger) who were most likely to have accounts, and see if they would have me as friends. This initial act was rewarded in a most unexpected way. I found another “Geivett” with a familiar first name, the name of a cousin I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. With moderate trepidation (how could I be sure?), I posted her a note to confirm my suspicion that this was in fact my cousin. She replied instantly and enthusiastically (this is Facebook, after all). Yes, one and the same. We arranged to have lunch on my next visit to Seattle, only a few weeks hence. Since then we’ve seen each other twice. Within a few weeks she’ll be visiting us in southern California.

Facebook is a powerful tool for reconnecting people who otherwise would not be able to find each other. For me, this alone is worth the cost of Facebook. And Facebook does exact a cost. Here are three areas where the cost is especially dramatic:

  1. Time. Facebook, for its true enthusiasts, is a time-sucker. The distinctive sucking sound can be heard at its most voluminous on college and university campuses, where Facebook addiction is more rampant than alcohol addiction—which, come to think of it, is good news.
  2. Fantasy. Facebook fuels fantasies of certain kinds. Possibly greatest is the fantasy of intimacy with one’s Friends. I’m a firm believer that “being there” is till better than “the next best thing to being there.” And while Facebook beats out the telephone as “the next best thing,” it ain’t the same thing. Whatever it’s supposed to mean for Facebook to be “bookish,” one thing is certain, the interpersonal contact Facebook mediates isn’t “face-to-face.” Following hard on the heals of this fantasy is another—the fantasy of finding and fanning old flames. This form of intimacy-chasing is encouraged by Facebook. How many users have punched the search engine with names of former lovers and crushes hoping, with vanity, to reconnect? Our emotional lives are suggestible, susceptible, and, yes, sordid enough without the support of new social networking tools. On the other hand, the positive potential of Facebook, even in the arena of quiet desperation, isn’t completely negligible.
  3. Information Management. Maybe “life management” is more apt here. Facebook has a growing inventory of applications. Some of these promise to put vital, or at least interesting, information in your hands, and with greater convenience. This is one of the advertised  advantages of “Groups,” for example. “Information overload,” a phrase of relatively recent vintage, has already long been clichéd. Clichéd or not, the burden it names is very real and is here to stay. Do we really need more information and information sources? Maybe what we need is less information. But that’s because of the burden information management imposes on general life management. Facebook doesn’t perform all the tricks a techno-society requires to remain organized, and, more to the point, hip. So it actually adds to the burden of keeping up. I already had three email accounts before Facebook. In effect, Facebook brings the tally to four. (OK, honesty requires that I mention my LinkedIn account, as well. But this adds proof to my point.) Maybe someday we’ll learn that the proper telos of technology is human flourishing, and discover that no technology is the best technology.

Yes, there’s a price to be paid for the Facebook frenzy. Used in moderation, however, it serves us well who cling to fantasies of intimacy in the midst of an information hurricane . . . as long as there’s enough time for other things that matter.

Copyright © 2008 by Doug Geivett

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Related Post: Geivett’s Glossary

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