Skip to main content

In a perfect world, an email would land in my in-box and I'd reply within the hour (assuming I'm awake). In fact, there was a time, not that long ago, that I was an in-box zero practitioner. By the end of the day, I'd make sure that there were no neglected messages in my account, giving the senders the respect they deserve and giving me a great sense of accomplishment.

A couple of months ago I wrote about your advice for managing email overflow, but the one thing we never addressed was how long a person has to send a response. I've had many conversations with my dad about this, and he's pretty adamant that one should send a reply within 24 hours. In theory, I agree. If you've taken the time to write a message and you need an answer, the polite thing for a recipient to do is to fire off a quick note (even if the full reply might take another few days).

Now while I agree in principle, I'm having a tough time keeping up with this one-day rule. Like many of us stuck in the land of email overflow, something has happened lately that is making it increasingly difficult to manage ongoing correspondence (and I believe that "something" is life, along with too many connected people). Just today I was sitting with a friend who has thousands of messages in his in-box. He looked at me with fear in his eyes, commenting that he didn't even have time to read his emails, let alone reply.

Managing email requires a personalized, custom set of rules. On busy days, I reply first to the people who pay me for work (oh, and my mom of course!). It makes sense to me that clients should be a priority, and others can wait. The problem with this practice is that could mean a sender doesn't get an email back from me for a few days, which I'm sure is a frustrating process and ends up inspiring them to write another email with these dreaded words, "I know you're busy, just looking for an answer on my message." Don't get me wrong, I love these email reminders, but then I am filled with guilt.

While I've been focusing on email correspondence, the reality is that messages now come in all shapes and sizes. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, not only do you have to respond to the people in your in-box, you also have to return notes on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. For the average person, this can mean hundreds of replies a day. Who has time? Not me. (I should mention that i'm writing this post at approximately 3:18am. This is a small window in the night that I plan to fire off some answers. Trust me, I don't make these late-night sessions a habit, but once in a while it's refreshing to pound off some replies without dozens more trickling in.)

Normally, I like to give tech advice, demystifying the digital world one blog post at a time, but for this situation I'm at a loss. What do other people think is the perfect path to proper email etiquette? What is the time limit for sending a reply, and what do you do if you can't keep up? Perhaps in the comments we can find ourselves an answer to a question that is bound to keep haunting us in the future. Oh, and if I owe you an email, I'm working on it, one reply at a time.