Here is a question I was asked by an attendee at one of my lectures. I was teaching the importance of not using email like Instant Messenger, of reading it only a few times a day in preset slots. The guy wanted to know how can he do this, when his customers expect him to respond instantly? Won’t they be annoyed (to use a mild term)? He would prefer to suffer than to upset his customers!
He certainly had a point. In my experience if you cut your email reading just like that, cold turkey, some of your correspondents will in fact go ballistic: What? You received my email ten minutes ago and haven’t already replied!?!? Interestingly, this has nothing to do with urgency; you’ll get this response whether you’re a brain surgeon on call or a student on vacation. So what can you do?
The answer is, you don’t “Just do it”; you plan it and communicate it and make provision for the obsessive expectations of Blackberry-toting colleagues. At a minimum, if you expect an adverse reaction, you can put in your sig a blurb like: “In the interest of staying sane and productive, I only read email twice a day; I try to reply within one business day”.
That approach may placate some of your customers – after all, they have a direct interest in your staying productive for their benefit! But there will always be the slightly hyperactive types who react with “OMG, what if I need this guy urgently? What if my life/business/happiness depended on his seeing my message right away?!” For these, you need to do one more thing: provide a method to reach you immediately in urgent cases. This should be a bit more laborious than clicking “Send”, to prevent its abuse; but the customer will feel much better if they know that should they need you immediately, they won’t be frustrated.
The simplest method of doing this is to provide a cellular phone number to these people, either on a one by one basis or simply by including it in your sig. You may also need to clarify to them that they should feel free to use the phone (you’ll be surprised, but not all people feel OK with that). A more sophisticated method is provided by the elegant solution called AwayFind, which you can see here. You sign on to use it, and then you add to your sig something like “I check email twice daily; to reach me sooner, click here: https://awayfind.com/johnsmith”. Clicking the link takes your correspondent to a web form where they fill a brief message; you will be notified of this to your cellphone immediately. Away Find does a lot more than that – it allows you to configure it to alert you of incoming email that you do need to know of immediately, based on various criteria, so you too can have peace of mind while staying away from the 24×7 mail checking addiction.
So, to sum it up: read your mail in batch mode in preset slots, and give your customers, bless them, a workaround for really urgent stuff. That way you are happy and effective, and they can still get to you as needed. If they can’t accept that, maybe you picked the wrong customers?