An interesting conversation with Jay Allen the other day got me thinking about how I cope with larger amounts of email. Not well, it turns out.
Despite the plethora of Nigerian scams and email-spread virii floating around at the moment, I’ve noticed my spam levels are at all-time lows. Which means the signal-to-noise ratio in my inbox is quite high, which also means that waking up to the sack of new mail that came in overnight is a daunting prospect.
It’s amazing how the internet is bringing together people who might have not otherwise meet; and there are a hell of a lot of them. It seems the more active you are online, the more people want a moment of your time. A five minute email response, multiplied by 50, equals a whole afternoon spent catching up. Every week. Matt’s policy of replying to every email received is admirable, but it doesn’t scale. (I tried too.)
Making yourself available for discussion is not a bad thing, it just means that an understanding needs to be reached between you and those wishing to get in touch. It’s a two-way road; you need to agree to be as responsive as possible, they need to agree to be selective as possible.
For what it’s worth, my strategy of keeping things managable at the moment goes something like this. This all applies exclusively to email coming in off this site and that other one, but not to previously-established communication or work-related email. Your mileage may vary depending on volume.
New email is read (or at the very least, skimmed) as soon as it arrives. If it requires a follow-up, it’s either replied to immediately, or marked as unread. (I rely on unread instead of flagged messages, so that my mail folders give me a count of how many outstanding messages I need to get to.)
I don’t answer many CSS questions anymore, instead referring the asker on to the excellent css-discuss list. That’s what it’s there for, and if it were to go around that you could get an answer out of me anytime you ran into a rendering glitch, well you’d certainly hear much less from me on here, for starters.
I start with the low-hanging fruit. Any email that requires a quick line or two in reply will get a response within a day or two, be it “thanks” or any other acknowledgement/question. Those are no problem, and so far I can generally reply to every one, usually quickly.
It gets thorny when email requires either a bit of thinking, a bit of debating, or a bit of digging into archives, Google or elsewhere to formulate a reply. Some of these I get to in short order, others sit for a while. I try not to leave them for over a month, but it happens. The problem with replying to them is that when it comes time to do so, I’ll have another new set of email to get to first, and once again the low-hanging fruit principle comes into effect. These can be pushed back rather far.
The worst are essays. I get the occasional email that spans multiple on-screen pages. I absolutely love that someone has taken the time to share that much with me; I feel a message that long deserves a considered response, which can end up being a page or two back. Finding the time to write that page is difficult. Again, low-hanging fruit is picked first most times. I always reply to these essays; I don’t always reply to them in a timely manner.
Email that ends up jumping the queue tends to be well thought out and will raise good points that I’d like to address more publicly. I’ll follow up with a response, and then post an edited version of that email on here. (No, this isn’t one of those.) I’d rather take the time I spend writing to build a publicly-available response for more than a single person.
What keeps me replying instead of just marking them all as read and letting them disappear into the ether? I value the time you spend writing me, and the thought you’ve put into your query. I’ll keep on replying to as many as I can.