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”

Never Check Your Email First Thing in the Morning (Regardless of Your Time Zone)


This advice comes from Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. The bit about the time zone is my little contribution.

This is great advice, but Ferriss doesn’t explain why. You can figure it out in context, but you might not have the book. And some things aren’t there. So here’s my explanation.

1. For many of us, email is a black hole. Once you get in, it’s hard to get out. We know this happens. So we might be starting our day with email just to avoid the really important and productive stuff. Don’t let this happen.

2. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you’re liable to spend more time messaging than you would later in the day, since it may feel like you have more time for email before the day really gets cranking.

3. The impulse to check email first thing every morning is a good indicator of an unhealthy addiction. If you feel like you simply must check your mail, then you have less discipline in your life than you need if you want to be productive.

4. Checking your email early clutters your mind with other people’s business when you want to devote your best hours to your own business. Before you open your mail, you don’t know what’s in there waiting for you. Why take the chance that it will bear tidings of new responsibilities?

5. By deliberately waiting to check your email, you train yourself to estimate more accurately the importance and urgency of email in your life. The bane of email is that it is too convenient and it creates an artificial sense of urgency. Postponing your email fix helps you experience the freedom from email that comes when you realize that very little of it is urgent. If you think it’s urgent, you may feel its bidding during all hours of the day, regardless of how often you check. And checking first thing in the morning feeds that sense of urgency.

6. Checking email first thing may encourage poor email management. Suppose you adopt the policy that you will never leave a message you’ve read in your inbox. Great idea. But to follow through on that policy, you have to have a message management system. The simplest of systems has three bins or folders, one for the archives, one for follow-up tasks, and one for holding items while you wait on someone else to complete a task. The rest can be deleted. So every message that’s opened is immediately handled in one of five ways: (1) it’s trashed, (2) it’s answered, (3) it’s archived, (4) it’s tucked into a follow-up folder, or (5) it’s moved to a folder awaiting someone else’s action. The FOLLOW-UP and WAIT bins will have to be monitored. So you’ll probably want to keep track of them in your task management system. Staying organized this way takes a little extra effort. If you don’t want to tie up your morning with these kinds of activities, and you just want to open your mail to see what’s in there, you will end up doing one of two things, practicing your management protocol when you should be doing something more productive, or leaving read messages in the inbox to be tended to later.

7. It may turn out that simply waiting a few hours to check mail allows just enough time for many messages to become stale. If a message has gone stale, because the urgency of the moment when it was sent has evaporated, then you have one less message to deal with.

And now a word about time zones. I live in California, where it’s three hours later than in the east. So by the time my day starts, other people in my communication loop have already had three hours to post messages. So I might think I owe it to them to jump into my mailbox right away to see if that’s the case. But I owe it to myself not to do this.

I’d like to know about your email headaches, and strategies for getting relief. So please post your comments. Just don’t expect me to reply first thing in the morning.

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