Email by Christopher Holm-Hansen from The Noun Project

Email by Christopher Holm-Hansen from The Noun Project

You probably know of at least one person who uses emails for real-time requests. They annoyingly ask if you’ve read their emails, sometimes instantly after sending them. This expectation puts unnecessary pressure on you to interrupt your productivity by incessantly checking your inbox.

For those of us working with such people, consultant Cyrus Stoller has come up with some rules on using multiple channels to reach each other instead of just email. With smartphones, we’re able to create a simple system of sorting and escalating priorities.

He says that if you want a response from him in…

…30 minutes, you should call him. “This gives you an opportunity to make sure I understand exactly what you need done and you know exactly when I received your request. If you don’t feel comfortable interrupting what I’m doing to make a request to me directly then it probably isn’t that urgent and can wait a little while.”

…two hours, you should text him. “This gives me time to gracefully wind down what I’m doing and call you back.”

…sometime today, you should IM him. “Instant message works well for slightly more asynchronous communication. You’re interested in getting a short response promptly, but it doesn’t need to be right away. This is less disruptive than calling or texting. This works well when you need to find out a concrete piece of information before you can proceed.”

…a day or later, email him. “Most people I know feel like they have too many emails to deal with. Think twice about whether email is the right way to communicate your information. You should expect email threads to be truly asynchronous.”

With our workdays more fragmented than ever, we need such rules to keep our systems running smoothly. Read Stoller’s full blog post.

  • Jim Hunt

    There are days I can’t differentiate between the stock ticker and my email in-box. I have often said email makes me feel like a short-order cook and I am definitely in the weeds on that one.

    • Hamza Khan

      It’s worth mapping out how you currently receive life’s random inputs and then designing a system that deals with them in a way that keeps you calm and focused.

  • Tina Pusse

    Seriously?? And as a result, you have to jump between 4 channels of communication instead of just one.

    • Hamza Khan

      But why not use them cleverly to filter out the real emergencies??

      • Tina Pusse

        The problem with “real” emergencies is, that when I tell my colleagues or students that they should ring me if there are real emergencies, they’d ring me ALL the time. For a someone not able to meet a final deadline and wanting to let me know why and ask for another day, that is a REAL emergency. For me, that’s nothing that couldn’t wait until my next “checking emails” time slot a few hours later. IM is just an invitation to mix up professional and private conversation. The chat will start of with something really (!) important, but as soon as that is solved you can be dragged into a 1 hour conversation about nothing. And you can’t always be abrupt with that person, if he or she is your boss or otherwise important or a just someone you like and don’t want to be rude to.

      • Hamza Khan

        Ah, I hear you Tina. As a teacher myself, I quickly learned that the rules have to be much more strict in a classroom setting. For the first week, I opened the floodgates and before I knew it, Facebook DMs were taking up my day. Facebook groups, or some sort of closed group, with a reminder for to you check in once or a few times a day, is much better in this context where everything seems urgent and important.

  • Christine

    I actually really really dislike receiving written business communications via text or IM. Text is probably the worst because responding back is a royal pain. It REALLY kills me when business associates message me on Facebook. Guess what – my FB notifications go to my personal email address, not my business email address. To me, only appropriate use of things like IM and texting in a business situation are for thinks like – I just sent you an email…wanted to make sure you got it. Or, I need to talk with you about XYX, when would you be able to take my call?

    • Hamza Khan

      I’m with you on not wanting to receive business correspondence via Facebook. Facebook is where I prefer to rant and stalk, not talk shop. Google Chat is where I do most of my IM’ing.

  • Pete

    I hate the over reliance on e-mails as much as the next guy, but I hate voicemails even more. I usually don’t even bother listening to them. I will just call the person and ask what they want. Texts are good for yes or no questions or when a real short answer is required. IM, especially if the person isn’t online right away is just a catastrophe waiting to happen.

    • Hamza Khan

      For voicemails, why not just have them convert to text?

  • Stephan

    I really don’t agree with this article. I have spent years “teaching” my clients to send emails and not call me. I feel that phone calls are so much more disruptive than emails. With emails (or other non-instant communication) I have the chance to finish one task and choose when to open the floodgates of the inbox. I have no Voicemail on my phone, and I almost always respond to emails within an hour. If I would ever write a book about how to succeed as a freelance designer with too little time, this would be my top tip…

    • Hamza Khan

      Interesting. May I ask what field you work in?

  • Terry B.

    I like the phone calls too. But what bothers me is when the caller doesn’t specify what they actually want. Often, the matter could be resolved even if we keep missing each other.

    • Hamza Khan

      THIS. If phone calls had subject lines, I’d reconsider my stance. Somewhere, Google is working on a telekinetic upgrade to Glass.

  • Frustrated

    Yes but how the heck do you get on with work with all this interruption?

    I find that a typical day for me is answering phone calls, replying to texts, hour long IM sessions for a simple edit and a full inbox of questions, quote requests and more.

    How can I stay responsive and timely to requests AND complete my major projects when I have a myriad of ways people can interrupt me and everyone expects everything done within an hour regardless of the communication method and how many times I tell them things similar to the above rules.

    Lately I’ve been steering everyone towards email and replying within 24hrs, it’s the best I can do to stay productive and responsive to my clients. However I do find that half my day is still taken up by these interruptions and if I don’t reply within 30-60mins they send through an email every ten minutes until I reply.

    • Hamza Khan

      Sorry to hear. However, it seems like your trouble is there being too much work for one person. May I ask what industry you’re in, and how many client projects you juggle in a typical day? It may be time to expand your team.

  • Keith Smith

    Have to agree with the other concerns. As clean and logical as this appears at first glance, practically speaking, it’s a bear to monitor all those channels. I much prefer email for most comms and then IM as a replacement for tactical, real-time discussions where I’m less concerned about archive and search.

    • Hamza Khan

      The beauty of this proposed system is that you can go about your day working on important projects. Only the real emergencies will come to you via phone and text. By communicating your system with your team, it’ll out the onus on them to reevaluate if their priority is actually an emergency in the first place. Win-win, if you ask me.

  • Héctor Muñoz Huerta

    For work I’ll only use email and direct phone calls.

    • Hamza Khan

      No matter what you do, keep it simple.

  • Thad Puckett

    Excellent list. Too many people think the email inbox is the perfect place, but it can be the slowest!

    • Hamza Khan

      Thanks! I’ve long since replaced email with Asana.

  • Bianca Landis

    This is great information! Thanks for sharing, this is something I will be using as a staple.

  • Guy Smalley

    As a freelance illustrator there are some clients I have to charge more because I know they interact more. New clients when I talk to them and ask questions I can generally after 40 years get a feeling of what I am in for. After the first phone call I really try to keep it to emails to have a record and to control the time spent interacting

  • GTrain

    I always skew communication to email and after that conference calls where I have a few people involved. I freelance for music and TV companies and not only does email help keep details straight, it provides a record that keeps everyone honest. I shudder to imagine some of the situations I’ve been in with my only backup being “But on the phone you said…” To me texts feel intrusive in a business context.

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