« The joys of renegotiation | Main | Debbie Downer and the Six Thinking Hats »

What's your maximum response time?

Have you experienced sending an email or leaving a phone message, hoping for a quick response, only to go days or weeks without hearing back? Assuming people aren't using a Magic 8-Ball to decide whether to answer or not to respond (Outlook not so good, Very doubtful, Concentrate and ask again), I'm trying to better understand what's going on.

This comes about as a result of applying Getting Things Done to my life (especially the "Waiting For" list), which has made me increasingly aware of response times, including my own, and has made me wonder a) why people take so long (or don't respond at all), b) what kind of response would be most reasonable, and c) whether adopting GTD would help.

First, why the behavior in the first place? I've brainstormed some possible reasons for slow or no responses:
  • No one home - Either no one is reading the messages at all, or multiple people have confused responsibilities about who responds, so no one does.
  • Too busy - The person has categorized the message as low priority, i.e., the recipient has chosen to spend time doing other work instead of responding.
  • "You are dead to me" - In this case, the person is trying to passively send the message "Don't write me," "I don't want to talk to you," "You're not important," etc, and so doesn't respond at all.
  • Unpleasant - The subject is hard to face, and easy to avoid, so the recipient decides to wait. This also includes not wanting to hurt the sender's feelings.
  • Unclear - The person doesn't know how to respond (needs more information, can't decide, etc.), so puts it off.
I'm sure there are better characterizations, but these captured some that I know of.

Second, what behavior would be better? I'd argue that clear and direct decision making is important to good communication. For example, I'd much rather have someone write back relatively quickly and simply tell me they're too busy to answer, rather than being left "on hold." And if the topic is unpleasant, or the answer unclear, I'd prefer recipients to write a quick note saying they need more time. Naturally, there's no reason these can't be phrased politely.

Specifically, regarding how fast to respond, it depends on the job(s) you do and your goals, but I liked these two perspectives:
  • In Getting Started in Consulting, Alan Weiss says he responds within 90 minutes to requests, and says he's successful 99% of the time. That's pretty impressive, and seems like an extreme for an individual handling communication by himself (e.g., self-employed).
  • I also liked the points made in Respond to your business email FAST!, which advises businesses to get back within 24 hours maximum with no exceptions. They say 12 hours is even better, if they want to be exceptional.

Finally, what does GTD have to offer? I believe it's helped my response times in these ways:
  • Processing messages using Allen's workflow chart, esp. by answering the questions "What is it?" and "What's the next action?," allows me to quickly hone in on the central issues of each input, make clear decisions about it, and dispatch appropriately.
  • The two minute rule, which David Allen is well known for (see the "Do it" box in the work flow chart), really speeds up message processing because so many items fall into this category.
  • By following Allen's advice to separate the five workflow phases (Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do - available in his Advanced Workflow), I'm better able to concentrate 100% on each phase (processing, in this case), instead of giving it continuous partial attention.
  • Finally, having a complete inventory of all the commitments in my work and life helps me be more judicious with how I spend my time. As a result, I've found I have a more businesslike focus when it comes to processing.
More generally, adopting GTD has given me increased energy just to deal with all the incoming "stuff," including email and phone messages. I find I'm just plain more on top of things.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Reader Comments (10)

In Self-Esteem, Dr. Matthew Mackay cautions that people often try to be "mind readers." I live by that. I NEVER try to assume anything.

Tom Peters mentions that, when in doubt, over contact. If you suspect a client (or contact) has something up, just lead with something friendly and general: "Hi, just checking in. Is there anything I can do to help?" That whole kind of disarming stuff.

Sometimes, people (and I think I mean me) lose the "thread" of a conversation in their skull, and those times are when I "park" things. Another time is when I think I've been acting in an onverwhelming fashion. Sometimes, I get concerned that I'm burying someone's mailbox.

So, those are my thoughts.

How are you? Anything I can do to help?

December 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Thanks a bunch, Chris. As always, great information. I was trying to have fun with it, and stimulate some discussion, and your points help.

December 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Very interesting post.

I do sometimes respond instantly, other times I take my time, either because I'm lazy or do not want to give the impression that I can respond instantly.

If you show someone that you respond to their emails very quickly then they'll keep bothering you with lots and lots of emails anticipating quick response. By waiting, you give the impression that you are a very busy person with a 'life'.

December 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

By waiting, you give the impression that you are a very busy person with a 'life'. Good point, anonymous. Explicitly using the delay for communicating...

December 3, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

While I'm sort of guilty of the same thing as "anonymous," I'm less sure that it's a good idea to do things in order to give specific impressions. Two points along these lines:

1) In "How to Win Friends and Influence People," Dale Carnegie recounts a story in which, trying to seem important, he concludes a letter to someone he wanted to interview for a book with the words, "Dicated but not read." The subject's response? "Your bad manners are exceeded only by your bad manners."

2) The "I'm busy and have a life" approach might backfire. You might be sending more of a "I can't manage my time or resources well enough to be in control of my tasks, including communication" message.

Just a couple of thoughts.

December 3, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterDon

Thanks, Don. Extremely good points. I have to say I'm more of a "straight shooter" (i.e., I like to be clear, with fewer "backchannel" modes of communication) and like that approach from others. Maybe I'm just less able to interpret these other modes. I guess that's the thing - As Chris pointed out, without en explicit statement from the recipient, I really can't know what's going on.

December 3, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

At work, I've tended to respond very quickly. In my personal or otherwise non-work mail, I've tended to get to it when I have time; depending on how life is going, this can stretch out for a while simply due to putting a lesser priority on checking those e-mails when other issues are going on. Although when I do get to it, I try to respond quickly.

In the case of work e-mails that have taken a while for a response, it has been for various of the reasons you listed (e.g., the action just wasn't clear or it was difficult).

In general, I strive to respond to people within 24 hours and I try to be sure to set vacation response messages when I will not be checking mail. This applies more strictly to work-related mail accounts though.

I usually prefer even short replies over no mail at all. Such as the "Can I get back to you in a few weeks?" or "yes." or "no." or "I'm not sure what you mean, can you explain?" variety.

Those are some of my thoughts.

February 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGary

Gary - thanks for your thinking. Re: relative priority of messages, that can be an effective strategy. I think the trap is training the "put it off and leave it" habit. I like the cleanliness of all of it being the same at the "needs my attention" level. That's different from your frequency of *checking*, as you hint at.

> I usually prefer even short replies over no mail at all.


Thanks again, Gary.

February 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

It can be the email response-time expectation gap rather than the actual response-time that causes frustration. You can use http://www.gertes.com (Global Email Response Time Expectation System) to set an expected response on an email (e.g. within Outlook or other email programs) before you send it. See http://www.gertes.com/pages/about/what_is/ specifically.

March 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark Brownlee

I'll leave your plug in place, Mark. I'm skeptical about the need for tools like yours, and I wonder whether softer changes would make more sense. If someone comes to me asking for technological solutions, I'd first investigate by asking some Whys.

April 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.