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Your job involves an overwhelming amount of communications from others. Managing email and texts is a vexing challenge. So you take a cue from what you’ve observed others doing. You add a line to your email signature saying “I check my email infrequently, so if your request is urgent or time-sensitive, please call.” For texts, you take advantage of services like the iPhone’s auto-responder while you’re driving.

This should all help you get a handle on things, right?

Not really.

Strategies like these miss the bigger picture, and actually do more harm than good.

That line in your email signature and the text auto-responder feel like positive steps. But they’re really reinforcing the idea that we’re supposed to respond to messages immediately — and that we must offer an excuse when we can’t.

In my trainings, I offer the message that email is never the right vehicle for urgent or time-sensitive communication. Email is intended to be asynchronous communication—I email when it’s convenient for me, you respond when it’s convenient for you. I understand the argument that people have come to expect an immediate response, but that doesn’t mean it’s right, or that we have to conform to that expectation. And the truth is, we can’t—it’s impossible. And trying to do so profoundly damages our ability to do our most important work.

You Can’t Do the Impossible

Yet this expectation has us all working at warp speed, causing constant distraction and scattered thinking, in a futile attempt to meet these unrealistic expectations. And this pressure to explain why you aren’t responding immediately just reinforces the idea that everyone should. Isn’t it time to give each other a break?

Some of my clients tell me they feel like they aren’t providing “excellent customer service” if they don’t respond immediately to emails. But consider your vendors. Don’t you give them a grace period to respond to your emails before getting upset with them? And I bet it’s at least a few hours or more. So why are we holding ourselves to higher standards than we hold others to?

(Note that my comments are restricted to expectations of “immediate” or “almost immediate” responses. When you are out of the office or expect to be unable to address messages for a day or more, I do recommend an out-of-office message for managing expectations.)

Regarding texts, I understand the argument that texts are more “synchronous” than emails. But I think we’re all “doing texts wrong,” too. Texts are best used in time-sensitive, but not urgent, situations that don’t really require a response, such as, “I’ll be 5 minutes late,” or “We’re sitting in the back on the left,” or “Can you pick up milk while you’re at the store?”

And when people use texts in other circumstances, it still doesn’t obligate you to respond immediately. I think that as a society we’ve forgotten that our devices exist for our convenience, not so everyone in the world can interrupt us at any time, and certainly not to obligate us to comply with those interruptions!

Changing Expectations to Manage Email

Instead of changing your email signature or using text auto-responders,  gently “retrain” the people who communicate with you. Ditch the habit of constantly checking your devices. Changing your behavior will change others’ expectations about when to expect responses from you. We all know people who answer messages immediately and people who don’t. And we adjust. People will do the same for you if you change from being the former type of person to the latter.

Does the prospect of missing an urgent message make you uneasy? Anyone who really needs to get hold of you ASAP will use rapid-fire calls, text and emails. When this happens, we all know what this barrage of communication means, and we answer. I think of it as our “common language of emergency.” So feel secure stepping away from all your communications periodically to direct your attention where you choose.

My grandmother used to say, “Just because the phone rings, doesn’t mean you need to answer it.” The same concept applies today, with all of the other forms of communication we receive. You can control your technology (it’s one of several components of attention management), instead of allowing it to control you.

To learn more about how to better manage email, texts and everything else vying for your attention, check out my books, Personal Productivity Secrets and Work Without Walls. You can start reading either or both for free, here.

Image credit: Infinite View Images