Is your inbox extremely full? Mine is.
How about--is your inbox full of apologies that probably shouldn't be there? Mine certainly is.
I have many inboxes with tons of messages from people I want to stay in touch with--multiple emails [see note 1]. I'm always reaching out to people from my past to reconnect or to people I've met more recently who I want to get to know better.
I'm not interested in small talk so quickly our messages can become long and empathy-filled. These messages can take time to respond to. Do I expect people to drop what they're doing and immediately take the time to write paragraphs back that both empathize with what I shared and catch me up on their own experiences?
But alas, everyone seems to think I do. Nearly every direct message in my inboxes includes an apology for the time it took to respond. It doesn't matter whether it took them 3 months or 5 hours, most people seem to feel the guilt.
Now, I'm not saying that there aren't cases where prompt responses are important! If you're on a team planning a timely project, you can really hold people up by not responding. It's up to you to figure out the policies or culture surrounding email at your work or to establish expectations among the people you're working on time-sensitive projects with.
But don't let your brain convince you that the email exchange catching up with your old college roommate should give your neurons the same anxious energy [see note 2] as does an email from a colleague about a deadline coming up tomorrow.
So, here are miscellaneous thoughts [see note 3] for retraining your brain so that every new online interaction doesn't cause you unnecessary guilt.
Remind yourself that someone reaching out to you does not create an obligation for you to instantly respond.
Yes, if someone approached you in person and talked to you, it would probably be rude to not respond. But that's not the situation facing you when your phone vibrates. Smartphones have changed the game but our brains haven't quite caught up. Almost anyone can reach out to you at any time and we have to adjust our expectations accordingly.
You have to prioritize based on your own needs and the needs of those you've committed to help.
Think about how many spoons you have and value your mental energy.
If you feel guilt about the time it's taking you to respond and that you can't reach out to the person again until you respond in appropriate depth to what they wrote you, you're less likely to respond! Let's keep our friendships low pressure and keep things fun.
April 30th is Email Debt Forgiveness Day. This holiday was created because of the rampant issue of people not responding to emails because of their awkward feelings about the time it's been since they feel they should have responded.
So, what shall we do to get away from this shame we all seem to feel about the rate by which we responded to our messages?
Well, stop apologizing for taking time to respond unless there's reason to believe you've caused them harm. It sets a negative tone for the interaction and adds unnecessary text that they have to wade through to get to your message.
Speaking of which, write more concise emails. If every messages involves complex stories to digest and multiple responses needed, exchanges will take more effort, happen slower, and involve more frustration.
And don't feel you can't contact someone about something else just because they haven't responded to the message you sent. Maybe
- it's on a lengthy to-do list
- it got caught in a spam folder
- they may have forgotten to respond
- they didn't know exactly what to say in the moment when they saw it
- SO MANY OTHER REASONS
Not only is it fine to contact them about other topics even if they haven't responded to one message you sent, it's probably also a good idea to contact them again about the SAME topics.
People can appreciate a reminder about the favor they're supposed to do you or the question you need answered. Don't assume everyone is keeping in mind everything they've ever agreed to do for you.
And don't assume that just because they forgot or haven't prioritized your request that you don't matter to them. A culture of those assumptions can add to the stress they may feel about the fact that they haven't gotten back to you yet.
On a related note, don't let yourself feel bad if it takes you a while to follow up on a plan to get together or to do a collaboration idea that grew out of networking. You both met on the night you happened to make time to meet a bunch of people--that doesn't mean you are expected to always maintain that level of constant responsiveness to new people you've met!
Yes, ideally you'll shoot off at least a quick message to make sure you both remember the face-name match. But if you didn't, don't think you missed your chance! Just send a message noting (but not apologizing) that it's been many months (or even years) since you first met and then express your interest in establishing or maintaining a connection.
It helps if you can find a way to keep track of messages to respond to. As soon as a message is marked as read, it can drift to the bottom of an inbox. Personally, that results in me putting off reading lots of messages just because I have to guess from the subject whether I'll have time to respond to the message immediately or risk not noticing it for future response. A to-do list with messages to respond to can help to keep you on top of (at least some more of) your correspondence.
A trick I use with a few close friends with whom our exchanges often include extensive sharing of complex experiences and/or frequent life updates: sending emojis. Emojis can convey that the sucky experience described does indeed sound like it sucked, the excitement being expressed is shared by the listener, or simply that the speaker has been heard.
Sending these messages can alleviate the listener of the stress of having to say the right thing all the time and helps the speaker more quickly know that their message has been heard. If you have a friend with whom you can establish preferred communication structures, give this emoji tip a whirl and report back!
Now it's your turn to share. Please weigh in on any of the following:
- how many unread messages do you have?
- do you tend to feel guilt when it takes you a while to respond?
- what do you feel is the expected amount of time it should take to respond to an email that doesn't have a specific deadline?
- do people apologize often for the time it took them to respond? How does that make you feel?
1. I've actually opened so many email accounts that Gmail won't let me open anymore with the same phone number. And yes, I have needed to open multiple new accounts since I hit this limit.
2. I do not mean any sort of woo-woo definition of the word "energy."
3. Initially I was creating an ordered list but I ran out of time and spoons to do that so I let this become a random grouping of thoughts. If you're having trouble getting a creative project together, it can help to decrease your expectations about its complexity or perfection.