On Reducing Email: Do You Really Need to Reply?

Me Too!

Or as the geekier folks often write it:

<AOL>
me too!
</AOL>

I really don’t know what causes it, but for some reason email seems to bring out the “me too” in many people.

You know what I mean: you’ll have a discussion – either a one-on-one correspondence, or more commonly, an exchange on a mailing list – and at its close or at some other juncture, you’ll get a completely content-free email (or collection of emails) from some of the participants.

Perhaps we feel the need to let people know we’re listening. Perhaps it’s the email equivalent of an head nod. The problem is, as I said, it’s otherwise completely content free. As a result, unlike an actual head nod, it’s difficult to ignore. Someone must download it, read it, determine its value (if any), and dispose of it.

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Email is an interruption

Imagine if a real-life head nod forced everyone involved to stop talking, look at you, and decide if your nod meant anything. Even if it only took a second, that would get very annoying very quickly.

It’s quite all right to take the floor if you have something to say. If not? Well, that’s really the point here:

If you have nothing to say, say nothing.

It seems simple enough. Before you dash off that next email reply – especially if it’s going out to a mailing list – look at it carefully. Are you actually adding value to the conversation? Is it something that your recipients will value? Will they want to see it? Do they need to see it? If not, why are you cluttering up their inboxes and stealing their valuable time? For that matter, why are you using your valuable time to do it?

ReplyThe last word

My personal foible is my need to have the last word. All too often, I find myself replying to an email and thinking, “Why am I saying this? What’s the point?” All too often, the point is simply that I’m unconsciously attempting to establish some kind of position in the conversation by making sure I’m the last person with something to say.

Unfortunately, the value of what I have to say decreases, since at this point I’m simply finding things to say, rather than saying something that needs to be said.

Another very common cause of replying a little too often is the need to correct, clarify, or build on a point that someone else has made. All too often, it’s more about showing superiority than it is about clarification.

If it’s important, then fine; but be realistic about what’s important. Quite often, it’s not as important as you first think.

Think before replying

Now, I’m definitely not saying you should never reply. Obviously, it’s quite possible that people are expecting you to join in the conversation, reply to a point or question, or correct an error. If you have something to say, say it.

What I am asking is that you think twice. Take a second to make sure that when you do reply, your reply has a purpose. If not, perhaps you don’t need to reply at all.

I think you’ll find quite often that’s perfectly acceptable.

It’s in your own self-interest, too

So far, it’s easy to consider all this as purely altruistic – you’re doing this to help others keep their inboxes clear, but it’s not about your own, is it?

On the contrary, this is also a selfish move – and in a good way.

Of course you save time when you don’t reply to every random message you might be inclined to, but there’s more. For every content-free email you send, chances are there’s someone else at the other end who doesn’t get the point we’re making here, and will respond with another content-free email in response. And you know where that lands: in your inbox.

If you’re trying to tame the amount of email you receive, thinking twice before replying will actually help you get less email.

So if you need a selfish argument, here it is: replying appropriately will, as a side effect, also reduce the amount of email you have to deal with.

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5 comments on “On Reducing Email: Do You Really Need to Reply?”

  1. And please, dear god, learn the difference between Reply and Reply All and only use Reply unless it is critical that everyone see your message.

    • Amen! And not just Reply vs Reply All, but also whether the sender is a person or a mailing list.

      I work for a large organization that has several mailing lists. Most of these lists are important, such as informational updates about the status of a particular system. I was off one Friday when one of the mailing lists sent out an email to advise that XYZ system was down. One or two people clicked Reply All so they could request to be removed from the mailing list. Of course everyone on the mailing list got the email because the reply went not only to the mailbox of the person who coordinates the mailing list, the reply also went to the mailing list, which did exactly what it was supposed to do and emailed everyone on the mailing list the comment it had just received requesting to be taken off the mailing list. Then, some people not liking receiving the cancellation requests, hit Reply All to say that they had received the email in error. And of course the mailing list sent those emails out to everyone on the list. Remember that commercial: “And they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on.”

      By the time I came in to work on Monday, there were 200 or so emails sitting in my Inbox, all mailed out by the mailing list. Unfortunately, as my job involves helping to support the system, I needed to actually glance at all those emails, in case there were any legitimate emails. So by the time I finished deleting them, there was about 100 more. The level of frustration in the emails was going up. In fact some of them were “yelling” at people to stop hitting Reply All (of course they hit Reply All to send their message to not hit Reply All). And in fact, some of them were people hitting Reply All to say that they had got the “do not Reply All” message sent to them in error.

      Reply All and mailing lists can be a dangerous combination.

  2. Another self-interest benefit of responding only when you have something meaningful and appropriate to add is that you’ll get a reputation for only commenting when you have something useful to add, and your response will, as a result, be more likely to be read and will be given more credence.

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