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Beware the ‘responsiveness trap’ of e-mail Add to ...

A few years ago, it was common to hear about people who only responded to e-mail once or twice a day. Journalist Sarah Green was like that, with a three-times-a-day strategy, but now, like so many of us, she feels pressured to answer messages as soon as they arrive.

On Harvard Business Review’s Editors Blog, she notes that e-mail used to be seen as beneficial because it was asynchronous – you could communicate without having to connect at the exact same time with a correspondent. No longer.

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“We’re essentially communicating in something like real time, without any of the benefits of actually communicating in actual real time. Instead of talking with one person and getting something done, we’re carrying on simultaneous conversations with hundreds of people and struggling to get anything done. When I look at my inbox, I hear a cacophony of voices all shouting for my attention,” she writes.

She calls it “the responsiveness trap.” The quicker people respond to us, the quicker we feel bound to respond to them. And since many of the messages we send spawn return e-mail, we’re accelerating the pace when we should want to slow it down, so we can be thoughtful instead of quick.

She advises you to decide whether you want to be responsive, making more work for yourself and others while reducing your attention span to zilch; or whether you prefer to be thoughtful, but as a consequence will be routinely apologizing or viewed as arrogant because of your tardy replies.

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