Dealing with E-Mail: The 24-Hour Rule

Do not answer upsetting messages for at least 24 hours

Posted Aug 17, 2011

I don't believe in e-mail. I'm an old-fashioned girl. I prefer calling and hanging up. - Sarah Jessica Parker

I know I am not alone in being overwhelmed by e-mail. I receive 200+ messages a day, and I actually welcome the Viagra/Cialis ads and the notifications that I am due millions of dollars or pounds from lotteries, long-lost relatives, and widows worldwide. I can immediately delete these sorts of messages and move on. But I still have lots of messages remaining that deserve or demand some sort of response.

A new genre of self-help is emerging that advises people how to handle e-mail. One useful bit of advice is called the GTD method, meaning "getting it done." That is, one should deal with e-mail messages as they first appear, by answering them, by delegating them, or by filing them. Fair enough. Another bit of advice is to answer no e-mail message with more than five lines. Again, fair enough.

But my essay here is about e-mail messages that boil your blood, for whatever reason. They annoy you, or insult you, or lay a heavy burden upon you. In many cases, these messages cannot be delegated or filed. They cannot be answered in five lines. And although they can be answered immediately, in many cases, a response off the top of your head, at least when your head is ready to explode, will only create more problems for you.

E-mail communication, at least as I do it, is emotionally clumsy. If all you want to convey is "Sure, let's meet for lunch tomorrow at noon," it is a godsend and can and should be done in the GTD-ish way. But if you are upset with what you think the messenger has said, e-mail is a terrible way to respond with nuance, subtlety, irony, ambivalence, or indeed true honesty, So-called emoticons don't work for me. :-{ They are too damn cute, at least in this context.

However, I have come up with my own principle for handling these sorts of e-mail messages. I dub it the 24-hour rule. When an e-mail message pushes your buttons, do not answer it for at least 24 hours. You will likely cool down. You will likely have a better response. Indeed, when you re-read the message a day or so later, you may even realize that it is not as upsetting as it first seemed.

Why 24 hours?  Few people who send e-mail messages expect an immediate answer, even if they have assaulted you. You can use the "my dog/server/spam filter ate it" excuse a few times to ignore altogether an upsetting message, but you cannot do so on a consistent basis.  So, 24 hours seems a permissible delay before responding. And if you are remotely normal, you will likely have slept on the message before you respond. Then you can send an appropriate message in the sober and factual way that e-mail messages afford.

The 24-hour rule is also useful even when the message demanding a response is not upsetting, although here you need to experiment. Some people are apparently glued to their e-mail inboxes, and a quick response by you only results in an immediate re-response from them. Unless the person messaging you is someone on whom you have a crush, an endless back-and-forth timed by nanoseconds eventually takes a toll. So, slow it down. Wait 24 hours.

Along these lines, the 24-hour rule is even useful when the message you have received is wonderful. Waiting a day allows you to savor what you think has been conveyed. After all, things that seem too good to be true sometimes are, so why rush in to dash your hopes and dreams? That said, you cannot wait too long to respond to the apparently wonderful messages you receive, just in case they are what they seem to be. There is a season for all things, and in the e-mail world, 24 hours is a good length for a season.

Trust me. This is really good advice. Think about it tomorrow.

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