Hacks for timely responses to emails and texts
July 21, 2015 4:30 AM   Subscribe

I used to be great at replying to emails and texts; now I am not. I need some ideas for methods to help me reply to people in a timely way. I could also do with some input into what is realistically considered "timely".

I used to be the kind of person who replied to emails and texts as she received them, and I have a reputation (now gradually crumbling) among my friends and family for reliably getting back to people about things.

I no longer feel able to do these things. I also now use more varied platforms to keep in touch with people - so while before it was just emails, now it's emails, texts, Whatsapp, Facebook messages, etc. I now see messages, and resolve to reply to them later, and then completely forget.

However, I am fine with messages that require an immediate response or can be answered without much thought. Those get a quick response. It's the long, chatty, "Hey how are you here is this hilarious thing that happened at work today" messages that I resolve to reply to later and then forget about.

Instead of becoming a lovely hello from a friend, I now feel stressed out by the social obligation involved in receiving a message. I know that's ridiculous. But the fact is that I have grown busier, and have less time for myself, and feel more protective of my me-time when I do get it. I have a busy social and family life, and I don't have the wherewithal for chatty texts and emails as much as I used to.

This has caused tension between me and some of my friends. I have been told I am not being a good friend for not replying to chatty messages immediately or at least, as soon as possible. I think they're probably right but I don't know what to do about it because it is often not possible for me to reply to messages right away. I also feel there are muddled expectations in what constitutes a timely response to a non-urgent message. I don't think replying five hours later is so bad, whereas some of my friends tell me it's inexcusably rude.

Anyway, I am looking for a method of keeping on top of my messages that will not involve me having to stop what I'm doing and replying to everything straight away but which will also not mean that I forget about messages or reply, like, 10 days later.

How do you guys keep on top of your correspondence? Should I put a recurring daily appointment in my calendar? Should I leave my emails starred or marked unread? What can I do which will flag up texts and Facebook messages which are due a reply in the same way? I am also looking for input as to what constitutes a reasonable time window to reply to non-urgent messages without coming across as rude.
posted by Ziggy500 to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
A five-hour turnaround is extremely responsive, in my opinion. If someone is upset about that, it's entirely on them.

As we become adults and take on new responsibilities, there has to be a shifting of priorities and in turn a rejigging of expectations.

I have some of the same feelings you experience around this issue, and the best approach I've found has been to retrain the people around you. Try to blast through a handful of these in one chunk of time each day, or every couple of days if that's easier. Ruthlessly copy and paste, if you can get away with saying the same thing to a few messages. Scroll down your texts/inboxes periodically to ensure nobody's been missed, to tie up loose ends. If you are consistent in responding to things on your new, manageable timeline, this will become the new normal and people will eventually be fine with it.

I also think it helps to let people know you're thinking of them without having to type out a lengthy update: send a funny link or picture or "how are you" periodically and see if that doesn't scratch the same itch for these people, with less effort.

It is unrealistic for your friends to expect immediate feedback on their breezy digital chatter. It sounds like maybe they don't have the family and work responsibilities you have, and need to be more understanding.
posted by HoteDoge at 4:51 AM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

You could be facing an issue of your friends having a different speed of life (in other words: obligations) that allows them to be chatty with texts at any time; or they're not realizing that their down times won't sync with your down times, when you can freely chat; or both. However it may be, you can always shoot back a quick "hey, super busy for the next [set time period], I'll get back to you later." You are then communicating with them, but telling them that you have other priorities for a while.

You can always start logging your conversations in some networked/synced system, either as a draft email or something like Evernote. With the latter, you can add check boxes to your lists, which could give you a sense of "task accomplished."
posted by filthy light thief at 5:05 AM on July 21, 2015

Great question. I struggle with this on a regular basis. I think the first part is something that you've accomplished (Unless I'm reading between the lines poorly). Set boundaries about how often and where you will check email. Calendar appointments are a great idea. I usually have one fifteen minutes before lunch, and at the end of the day. I use the first five minutes to triage (usually about 80 emails a pop). I only respond if I'm in the TO line, and delete the others after a brief review.

Did you know that the conventional wisdom now is not to check email on arrival to work? Best practices indicate that you should wait at least two hours as when you arrive you should focus on setting a plan for the day (checklist) and accomplishing 1-2 before checking email.

Lastly, it's okay to send everyone (USE BCC:) a quick note indicating how often you are able to reply. It's amazing what setting an expectation can do for your peers/friends/family and for your own sanity.

I wish you success.
posted by Draccy at 5:29 AM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

This has caused tension between me and some of my friends. I have been told I am not being a good friend for not replying to chatty messages immediately or at least, as soon as possible. I think they're probably right

It sounds like there's a disconnect between you and your friends, and it's not a given that they are correct. No matter how good your "system" for tracking messages is, there's only so much time in a given day and time spent on those messages is time not spent on work or on yourself. So while a new system might be helpful, you should also evaluate whether you really want to spend the time on these messages or if there are other things that are more important to you. Our excessively can-do culture likes to pretend that we all have enough time to do everything we want, but it's just not true.

I have friends that I would probably be closer with if I put a lot of effort into messaging them. Honestly, I'd rather spend that time working out, working on my career, or focusing on my wife. So I don't put much effort into communicating with those friends. It's a shame, but if I spent that time messaging friends something else would have to suffer. On the other hand, you might decide that these friends are worth the effort and carve out some time of your day to make sure you respond to messages. So before you go looking for a system, you might want to clarify to yourself whether these messages are a priority for you. If you don’t reply in a timely fashion, you may put some distance between yourself and your friends. That might be fine if there are other things in your life that are a priority.

Anyway, as for a system: I do 2 things. One is to keep a Google Calendar (or electronic calendar of your choice) where I schedule many, many parts of my day. That means it has SO MANY THINGS on it, but it makes an excellent to-do list because I can stop worrying about remembering and just do the task during its assigned time. If I’m too busy, the task gets moved to another time or day. So if I get a message that really needs a thoughtful reply, I might schedule it for 2 hours from now or for lunchtime when I probably need a break anyway.

The second thing I do is I have a Gmail “to do” label. Anything that should be done soon but not urgently gets put there. See this page under "6. The Power of the Plus Sign” for details of how to make this easy. That way you can go to your to do list daily or every couple days and work down your tasks, including replying to people.
posted by Tehhund at 6:28 AM on July 21, 2015

FWIW, I think friends complaining about a 5-hour break between replies are pretty ridiculous, unless the message in question is something like "Hey, you were supposed to meet me 15 minutes ago, where are you?!" Do they really think you're never working or engaged in some sort of activity where you're not tied to your phone for more than 5 hours?! For these folks, I would try to gently say something along the lines of: "Hey, you know I love you, but sometimes I just have to disconnect from the computer or focus on work for my own sanity. It's really not meant as a personal slight."

I do starred emails in Gmail, and do my best to go through all the starred emails once or twice a day to catch up on any replies I may have missed. I typically don't get to this on the weekends, so I'm a little slower with replies during that time (I really try to unplug on the weekends because I spend all day in front of a computer at work).

For texts, I don't read texts unless I am committed to replying immediately. That way the little red notification icon on my phone will keep reminding me that the message is there (otherwise I will 100% forget).

For other programs (Facebook, other social media, etc.) I think you can/should decide which ones are important mediums for you to interact with people, and then clearly communicate that with people. If you're going to use it, then figure out a system to make it work for you. If you decide not to, just delete your account otherwise let people know that this is not a great place to message you if they want a quick response.

I tried to do the Facebook messages for a while, but because it wasn't in my inbox I would just continually let messages languish there for weeks on end (even important ones that I would never have failed to respond to via email!). Now when people message me on Facebook I try to reply right away with something to the effect of "Hey - I'm terrible with Facebook messages but let's catch up with a phone call/via emai/etc." And then shoot them an email. Once it's in a format I do better with, I am a lot more likely to respond (and after a couple of times of this, people do better about avoiding the FB messages).
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:21 AM on July 21, 2015

>I don't think replying five hours later is so bad, whereas some of my friends tell me it's inexcusably rude.

Cripes, no wonder social obligations are weighing you down! I am very much a "within a day or so" person for short non-urgent communications, longer if it needs a multi-paragraph response. And the friendships I have mostly operate with a similar time-dilation, because we all know that we have work and kids and groceries, and that if we waited for mutually convenient times we might never manage to communicate anything.

At work, I occasionally need to reply to someone that their message merited a longer response from me, and that my schedule was full until X, when I would be able to do so. Since you are talking about longer email responses, maybe a response like that would work? It's a way of showing that the delay is not due to lack of care; quite the opposite.

The way I try to keep that stuff organized is by being pretty ruthless about my inboxes, shuttling them to other places or deleting as soon as the question has been addressed. It's much easier to see what's on the to do list that way.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:15 AM on July 21, 2015

Sign up for Sanebox its like having your personal assistant managing your email.
posted by Mac-Expert at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2015

I feel you, Ziggy500! I've been on both the giving and receiving end of your dilemma. Here are a few tactical items I've found helpful:

+ Make it a habit to pick up the phone and call the person during convenient times for you (commuting, cleaning, cooking, walking the dog, etc.). Specifically reference their message and say that this is your way of responding because it's easier/more efficient. Leave a voicemail if you have to! Writing feels like work sometimes. A quick convo is sometimes all it takes to reconnect. It also helps train your peeps to try you in other ways and cut back on digital conversation trails.

+ Respond to texts and emails with voice memos. At first, people might find it funny/odd, but it's super efficient. I reply with recorded responses (most messaging apps have this built-in function) and they can also get back to you when they're available. It conveys warmth/personality too.

+ Learn keyboard shortcuts for your email app (especially if you use Gmail). It will drastically cut down the time you spend hovering around your feed.

+ Turn on SMS read notifications (iPhone) or consider apps that have this feature built-in (Whatsapp/Line/etc). Helps signal to the other person where you're at in terms of availability.

+ Use a service like Boomerang to manage your inbox. Reschedule an email to return to you on a more ideal time for it to be addressed. When you receive it again, act on it that day. It's magical.

+ Ask for grace and manage expectations. If these people are truly your friends or allies, you should feel safe to tell them next time you see them in person that you value the relationship, apologize for any mismatch, emphasize you only mean well, and would love their patience and understanding. Let people know what the best medium of communication is, and encourage them to continue trying you! This might help temper the anxiety and resentment on both ends.

+ Give 30% in the first reply, and suggest there's 70% more should they need more from you. Sometimes when a friend asks us for advice, referrals, recommendations, a rundown of what's going on in your life, anything, we end up putting a lot of effort into responding in a way that feels complete/helpful/considerate/well thought-out (after all, an email or message is a written document!). The truth is that this isn't always necessary. They might have been satisfied with just a small portion of that effort. Close with a disclaimer that says this is just a snapshot or a few starting pointers, and allude to the fact that there's so much more you wish you had time to write out but don't. If they really need more from you, they'll ask. Only do that 100% exertion if you really want to -- not out of obligation but out of pleasure and unconditional to their response.

In closing, don't feel bad that this might be your new normal. Make sure you practice good self-care and set boundaries. Best of luck!
posted by doctordrey at 12:41 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

Not much help, but you aren't the only one.
posted by rux at 10:04 AM on July 22, 2015

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