Overwhelmed by the stress of a full email inbox and the obligation to reply?

Charlie at Productive Flourishing wrote:

Are you increasing signal or adding noise in your communication with other people?

…a good way to assess the information that we’re thinking about spreading is The Triple Filters Test. The test asks whether the information you’re spreading is true, good, and useful, and if it’s not, it’s not worth the time. That same test applies to the conversations and messages we send to people, as well.

…I became very judicious about what information I’d send her. The question I asked each time was “Is this worth my time to write and/or her time to read?” You’d really be surprised by how much of your email time can be cut down if you treat your friends’ time the same way you want your time to be treated.

Charlie makes a good point, and I want to follow up on his comment, “Is this worth my time to write and/or her time to read?” Reading and writing are very different activities, both in how much time they take and in how many good things and bad things they bring to you.

Reading an email is usually a very small time investment. Most people read at a speed of 200-250 words per minute, and most emails are short. Even if your email is noise rather than signal, you probably haven’t negatively influenced the recipient’s life in any way other than perhaps wasting 30 seconds of their time. In fact, you may have brightened their day with your idle chatter, helping create or strengthen a connection. There are three ways this could go wrong.

1. If your email is very long, you’re taking up more of the recipient’s time. If you’re writing a long email, it had better be all signal and no noise.

2. If your email is likely to upset the recipient, think about whether sending it will achieve anything useful. If you think they’re likely to react defensively and not really listen to what you’re writing, then you might as well hold back from sending it. Also think about whether email is the best medium to convey what you want to say. Touchy subjects are best handled in person, and phone is often better than email.

3. If the recipient feels obligated to reply to your email, you may have introduced additional stress into their life. If the goodness they get from reading the email is outweighed by the obligation and time of writing a reply, receiving the email has on the whole brought them more badness than goodness.

This is of course a matter of boundaries — you’re not necessarily responsible for others’ reactions to your email, or for their obligation issues that you may trigger. However, if you’re sending an email to someone you like, you probably want them to be happy to receive it. If they’re initially happy, but then your email sits in their inbox for days or weeks, stressing them out because they feel obligation to reply but don’t know what to say or don’t have the time, then you haven’t achieved your goal of having them be happy to receive it. Replying to an email takes 5 times longer than reading it, and that number can go up to 50 if you include thinking of what you say. I know a lot of people who stress about their overfull inboxes, so I’d imagine that this situation comes up a lot.

Some busy folks address this problem by email templates. They write out a few common replies, e.g.


Thanks for writing, but unfortunately I must decline your offer.  My
full schedule simply doesn't permit me to do all the things I would
otherwise like to do.  Hope you understand.

Jebediah Bloafrahaha of the Jebediah Bloafrahaha Billiard Balls

Even if you personalize each reply, working from a template can help you avoid that feeling of staring at a blank screen and not knowing where to start. Personalizing a template often takes much less time than writing a reply from scratch.

Most of us don’t feel busy or overwhelmed enough to warrant email templates, but take a look at your inbox. Do the facts square with your feeling? Do you think your friends would appreciate a reply, even if it were a personalized template? More importantly, do you think your friends would want you to stress out about having not replied to them yet? Especially the random chatty emails, not the “Hey, how about that money you owe me” emails.

SPOILER: Pace is going to advocate communication.

What if we made our expectations explicit? What if, the next time we wrote a friendly, shoot-the-breeze email to a friend, we tacked on:

No need to reply, just wanted to say hi.

If your friend is a little neurotic about email like many of us are, that little sentence might make the difference between whether your email ends up being a happy-making thing or a stress-making thing for them.

On the other hand, if we do need a reply, let’s make that explicit as well.

I need to know this by the end of the week, okay?  Thanks.

In real life, if you walk up to someone, ask them a question, and they just stand there and stare at you, you’ll think they’re either incredibly rude or that there’s something wrong with them. The same goes for a phone conversation. But with email, the social conventions aren’t as well established; people disagree on the etiquette of which emails to reply to.

So let’s talk about it.

Let’s tell our friends about our little neuroses. It’s not your friends’ responsibility to compensate for your issues, but they’ll probably appreciate having more information about you. Let’s tell our friends about our expectations, too. If we’re feeling obligated to reply to a bunch of emails that our friends never expected us to reply to, then we’re putting a completely unnecessary burden on ourselves.

All it takes to relieve that burden is a little communication.

Feel clear and confident about your direction in life!


Do you wish you could follow your heart, but it seems impossible? I can help you find the clarity and courage you need.

In other words, I can help you find your path.