Sunday Life: try this “push back” holiday out-of-office reply!

Posted on November 28th, 2010

This week I push back


I know about a dozen people who simply don’t reply to email. I used to wonder how they got anything done, or sustained a social life. But they’re always at parties and are some of the most successful, adroit people I know.

OK, surely, then they’re in a permanent state of guilt-squirm. I mean, imagine walking around with that many unreplied emails hanging over your head! That’s a heavy karmic cloud, right there! But, nope. They’re unperturbed.

My friend James, one of the dirty dozen, says he feels justified in being so electronically AWOL “People think that because they’ve spent five seconds firing off an email asking something of me, they deserve a response that will take me 25 minutes to research and compose,” he says. “It doesn’t weigh up.”

In the past, he says, you’d have to compose a letter or pick up the phone, which required more considered application and was deserving of considered help. Which is actually a terrific point.

But isn’t he afraid important stuff won’t get done? No, he says. If it’s important to him, he does in fact reply (clearly mine rarely make the cut). If it’s more important to the other party, he says, they’ll find another way to a) get their answer or b) make it easier for him to give them their answer (eg: “Dear James, could you please advise which of these three carefully thought-out options works best?”).

Which sounds horribly selfish. But on consideration, it’s supply/demand theory applied to the time-poor economy. You want it more, you do the work.

Catching up with the Jameses of the world is bloody infuriating. But I wonder if they’re not the survivors… the post-nuclear fall-out cockroaches of this frenetic information age.

In days gone by success was a measure of how much information you could acquire. Today, an ability to block information, including emails, meeting requests, tweets, invites and news alerts, has cache. Productivity and marketing gurus I’ve spoken to, like Seth Godin, stress the value of artificially limiting exposure to information by leaving our phones at work over the weekend etc.

But does survival entail more than just stemming the tide? Isn’t it more about pushing the information and commitment back as James et al do?

This week I played with this idea. I have a friend who regularly suggests we catch up. That is, he flicks a text -“Let’s catch up”. I text, “Love to”. He replies, “Unreal, you book a place and send me a meeting request”. The earnest sucker I am, I do this only to have him tell me he’s busy that weekend. He emitted one of his “invites” again this week, but I pushed back: “Sure, I’d love to. Where and when?” This felt fair. He sought the catch-up; he can expend the energy in organizing it.

I also pushed back on various requests – to make an introduction, another to complete a quick project. “Sure,” I said. “Write up your proposal and I’ll forward it on.” In the past I’d sit on it for a week until I had time to do up the whole prop myself. So pushing back is a win-win in such an instance. (Although, interestingly, the requestee in this case went electronically AWOL once I pushed back on her.) I also deleted outright a request from a blog reader for the number of a nutritionist I use. It didn’t warrant the reply: “Try the Whitepages”.

But what about this doozy. A while ago I requested, via email, some help from Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Work Week. I got an auto-reply from him saying he was away for two weeks and that if the matter was still important in a fortnight, to kindly resubmit my email then as he will be deleting all emails on his return from leave. Stunning stuff. But fair. I wanted a piece of him; the responsibility should be pushed back to me to do the follow-up.

I tried this push-back auto-reply this week for four days while I was out of the office and deleted my inbox on my return. Nothing fell apart; everything got down. But I wrestled with my guilt and fretted that it seemed arrogant. Shouldn’t we help where we can? Show we care? Well, yes.

But I ask you, how much help are we when we’re resentful and bitching about how everyone wants a piece of us and we don’t have time to get everything done? A query you may feel inclined to push back on me…no, but, seriously…what do you think?

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  • Sasa

    I see the usefulness of the push back idea – especially for time-consuming requests where it should be incumbent upon the asker to do most of the work such as requesting you forward a proposal – but really – not writing “try the whitepages” but going to the bother of writing it out (publicly and somewhat humiliatingly) here? Not seeing the time-saver, unless you are making an example of her so the rest of us don’t follow suit, in which case I guess it makes a kind of sense.
    That said, doing so makes you seem far more arrogant than the deleting email idea I think – if one is away, especially on holiday, it’s not fair to have to make up for that time by ploughing through emails when you get back.
    On the other hand, you often ask readers to take the time to share advice of a similar sort which is accessible by simply Googling. Would it take so long look at your phone and to type 7 numbers? Or perhaps your time is just more valuable than ours. Perhaps there are other, extenuating circumstances you don’t mention here but your priorities are somewhat baffling to me.


    Annanotherthing Reply:

    I thought the same re: the blogger comment, and then on reflection realised:
    a) Sarah is a writer, writing a column on what she did this week, in this vein, of helping herself to live a better life and examples of what she has done are essential to illustrate the point, and
    b) Whenever Sarah mentions a practitioner that she really connects with, like her nutritionist, she will often link to their site or mention their full name and at least their suburb, therefore, the blogger mentioned has pushed the effort back onto Sarah without exerting much effort themselves.


    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    Hey Sasa, good point. But, re the “try the white pages” comment, I make the comment to highlight how lazy people can get with email…rather than look up a number, they email a stranger (me) to do the work for them. I’m aware it seems arrogant (and I acknowledge this in the column) but I also think this is what we need to do to “retrain” the people around us not to abuse us. It’s merely a matter of sticking up boundaries…so that I have time and care for the people closest to me…which are my priorities…


    Sasa Reply:

    I do see your point, if it is to retrain people’s habits then. Not sure why a person would go to the effort of searching out the email address on a website and then composing an email to ask for something when it would be far quicker just to Google the nutritionist in the first place actually.


  • Fiona

    I like the idea of always setting my out of office a little longer than I’m actually out. Just gives me time to deal with things.


  • shanna

    I return emails in my own good time, and don’t stress about it. It used to stress me out, but really, it’s MY time, and while I would like to keep in touch, answer questions, etc. I spend WAY too much time on the internet as it is, and would prefer to schedule time to deal with such things. If it’s an emergency, I will answer as quickly as possible, but most of the time it’s random stuff, catching up, etc. and really, do I need to be pressured to respond in a certain time frame. I think that people like you, who have some sort of celebrity status, can often be inunduated with emails that are impossible to answer, and creating boundaries, without the guilt, is important.


  • Mia

    I can see the point of this for someone who recieves a lot of emails and finds this draining to their time.

    Myself, however, as I work in admin/finance, my job is to help. And my particular group of workmates aren’t great on communication, being introverted types. I relish recieving emails from them, because when I am making decisions on their behalf – the more information I have the better! I would hate them to stop communicating with me, that would make my job harder.

    I guess I am lucky in that I rarely recieve personal emails – my friends tend to arrange meet-ups in a courteous and considerate manner. Did I mention I only have a small group of friends but they are all diamonds? I don’t do “aquaintances” and I think this is the key. I can imagine it would be different for some though!


  • Ange

    I think you are spot on Sarah, at first I was an instant replier, I stressed about my in box and about many other forms
    Of communication and then through a course of circumstances I burnt myself out, now I reply to emails
    when I am good and ready. I have just had a week off work in NYC after a conference in the states and whilst I
    kept up to date with what was coming into the inbox, I was emailed numerous things that require responses by
    my manager and I will reply when I return some time this week. I truly believe that technology is stiffling and
    choking “real” human interaction and communication and a back lash is coming…. A back lash from online communication
    and a desire for more “old fashioned” face to face and voice to voice communication. Email is part of this backlash
    and your article ads to the turning of the tide. I have a distain for electronic devices, pc’s, tablets, instant messaging, reading devices etc etc
    pick up the phone, meet for coffee, pick up the phone and call me, don’t email me, if I value you more then you will
    value me more and communicate the way humans should. Watching Wall-E last night is a great summation of what some of us will become,
    communication is an art form, a way to have, form and build meaningful relationships, not merely just for shallow interaction.
    Thank-you Sarah, another great column, I really enjoy reading your article in the paper each week :-)
    Ipad and Kindle free!!


  • MrsGinger

    My husband rarely replies to email. He will read them and if it warrants a response he will rather phone the person. His thinking is that it takes less time to talk than to type and you get an immediate conversation rather than a protracted one. It means he can get back to watching sports or whatever. He is a very popular and influential person amongst his peers and colleagues because of it.


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  • Mark McCann

    Not replying to emails from friends is not being tech savvy – it’s just plain rude and ignorant.
    As for deleting all emails after a holiday, why can’t the person scroll through them and delete all the spam, then read the personal emails?
    This trait is a very Sydney one. A colleague in Melbourne hates having to ring Sydney, as no one is ever in, and they never return phone calls.
    Perhaps Dame Edna had the last word, when she once said: “My mother told me never to suck the bottom of the milkshake, like Sydney people do.”
    Mark McCann


    AJ Reply:

    The trait is a very Sydney one? What a ridiculous comment. Take your inferiority complex elsewhere. In the meantime, I’ll be sucking on my milkshake.


    Mark McCann Reply:

    Of course you will, you Sydney lowlife…..


  • Julie

    It depends on how much time I have on my hands, but I switch between quickly getting back and letting it sit for a couple of days. I do like email a lot and it’s always easier to reach me there than on my phone, I really dislike my phone, always feels like way more of an interruption to me. This article in a way is also a good lesson, to be clear and indeed research properly, I try to only ask around if I really can’t find it or am overwhelmed by the information…Love, Jules


  • Kim

    I find this post a bit sad. It’s a reflection of the way society is going….”my time is precious and I’m too busy to read/reply to your email”. I find this rude and de-valueing. Sometimes it’s better for us to make the extra bit of effort, go out of our way to help another person. Even if we don’t like it. That’s what karma is all about.

    Otherwise, love your stuff Sarah.


    Madison Reply:

    Agreed. When did we all get so important as not to be able to answer communications?
    Sarah – you’ve also got the joy of a PA to weed out & answer the biz ones for you!


    JessB Reply:

    I kind of agree Kim, but I can see both sides.

    On the one hand, it is lovely to go out of your way and do something nice for someone. On the other hand, it drives me to distraction when I get emailed a questions that could have been answered with a little effort by the person on their own.


  • Erin

    I’m actually a fan of using email over texting or calling, unless it’s urgent. If I just want to say hi or ask something fairly inconsequential, email allows people to get back to me in their own time.
    I quite often don’t answer calls or reply to texts because they always come at the most inopportune moments and the problem with this is, they are then forgotten about. At least emails can be marked as unread and I then have that little reminder to get back to the person who may have only spent 5 seconds composing an email but at least thought of me enough to email me in the first place.


  • Stephanie

    You know, I don’t have this problem. It’s different for those of us who work in occupations that are more solitary. I spend most of my time doing economic research, so when people contact me they contact me for something important. I always respond to all requests. As for personal time, I have always set boundaries there, although they’re not really needed. Like Mia, I tend to have few acquaintances and a small set of deep friendships. I can imagine how different it must be when one is 1) a public figure; and 2) a journalist. It must be difficult to manage both the fact that you often want things from people and so have to fight to get their time, and the fact that likewise people want a piece of you. I couldn’t do it. I like Seth Godin’s approach though and I think that push back is generally fair.


  • Gill Stannard Naturopath

    Thanks so much for writing this piece. I love it.

    I made a conscious decision for my business to focus on using one form of communication only – a landline. Yes very old-fashioned, I know and for someone in business to limit the point of entry seems crazy on the surface. But this is how and why. There is only one of me. I don’t have a receptionist. The more ways of getting in touch, the more time it takes to monitor and respond to them, as well as greater chance for something to go wrong. The message bank is on 24 hours a day, each message is time stamped. The outgoing message lets the caller know when I will return their call (on specific days). This means I have only one method of communication to monitor. I do not have my mobile phone number or email address on any piece of clinic stationery or on the website. Those who do crack the email get an instant responder saying I don’t check it regularly and if it’s a client to call the clinic. The onus is on them.

    This quarantines my work life as much as possible to the times I’m working. I’ve found people don’t mind so much that I’m not available 24 hours a day, rather they feel reassured that they know when they’ll hear back from me. There’s a kind of communication anxiety when we leave a message and don’t get a reply and don’t know if they’ve got it, or are ignoring us or something. But if we know we will not hear back til Tuesday, then it’s ok. No stress.

    It’s great that we want to communicate with each other but until I can clone myself I’m regarding these methods as a tool, not my master.


  • Bree

    As an avid reader of Tim Ferriss’ blog, I’m looking forward to finding out if you did, in fact, follow up your request with him… hope we will be reading an interview of yours with him soon


  • christine

    I also try to limit my non face to face communication. I used to be an avid user of msn and email but I found it used up all my time and drained me. I’d have to go back home and just not talk for the rest of the night to recharge my social energy. Nowadays I have a a pre-paid phone and ask my friends to call me if it’s important.

    I get that ‘let’s catch up’ stuff as well. I say ‘give me a time and place and I’ll be there.’ Clears the air and alot of other unnecessary stuff.


  • Amy

    I find it quite interesting that some people have had such strong reactions of distaste to the idea of ‘pushback’.

    Personally, once again I’ve found your column to be quite ‘on topic’ and synchronous for me, as communication ‘spam’ has recently become more of a problem for me.

    I can completely relate to the idea that the person sending an email takes x amount of time to write a request, which will take considerably more time to respond to – and I think it’s perfectly normal not to want to honour each and every single of these requests, particularly if the requester hasn’t put in any groundwork themselves and is relying on you to come up with the goods.

    I would imagine that people who find this approach (which is essentially a kind of coping mechanism) rude may not necessarily themselves be bombarded with correspondence demanding an instant response. Could I be wrong? Quite probably. It does seem though that if you’re not so busy you find it harder to be patient with someone who is busy, and taking longer than you might like to respond.


    Emily Reply:

    I totally agree. As someone who is often a “go to” person where I work, large chunks of my time are taken up with answering questions from people who are too lazy to learn/remember/look up the information themselves. I often wonder how they think I go to know whatever piece of information they ask for which is often totally unrelated to my job. I think it just shows utter disrespect for my time. Now, I’m training myself to learn how to respond to such requests without being rude but being firm about not going out of my way to help them (if it’s not my job) because otherwise they will always think of me as that person who gave them that piece of information and take advantage of it – as the saying goes if you give them an inch they’ll take a mile.


    James Reply:

    ‘If you give them an inch they’ll take a mile” albeit unconsciously. I don’t believe most people intentionally try to take advantage of one another. We quite often, if not always, set up our inter-reactions with people in the very first communications with have with them. At what stage do we take responsibility for our actions that then lead to certain reponses/reactions. When we see that they are cyclical then maybe we have something to do with it and then we have a choice to change the way we communicate. Awareness….choices….beautiful….it’s so empowering and beautiful.
    I like your post Emily and that you are ‘training’ yourself. See what happens, life is basically a big experiment…..see what works best for you.
    I think most people who are unconsciously uncomfortable with this article, I know I was initially and then I asked why, may have difficulty with the western belief of chronically people pleasing……that’s why it initially confronted me. There’s a desire to want to help ‘everyone’ because we usually get some sort of ‘recognition’. That’s just ego. What happens when we don’t get that recognition – more than likely resentment projected at someone else because we had an expectation of attention/recognition. Best not to have expectations and possibly question ‘why am I actually doing this?’

    Go Emily.


  • James

    Following this thread reminds me of the wisdom in choosing between getting my needs met and satisfying the needs of others. The other thing that comes up for me is questioning of beliefs such as ‘I must answer all my emails/texts/twitters/verbal questions’. Who says I need to answer everything? I like to think that I am learning instinctually to make the choices that best fulfil my needs while remaining compassionate to others. The wisdom to delineate is sometimes difficult. I like that you have questioned yourself Sarah, i’m sure changing your ‘wired’ response to respond hasn’t been easy. Shake it up dude………


  • James

    If nothing changes nothing changes………..


  • jacinta

    Hats off Sarah. I agree. Now if someone could just explain the concept of a short email to my well meaning mother….


  • D.

    I see your point, but I, for example, find it easier to write an e-mail than call because I am very timid. Also, I get to check if I have written everything I wanted and I am giving the person some time to answer, I’m not jumping on him/her by calling them on the phone and demanding (or politely asking for something).


  • Jane

    I looked at this a little differently and I still felt confronted by the idea because I thought what if I was the one emailing? Aren’t I important enough not be deleted? Lol! Hello ego! :)


  • c.

    On a lighter note Sarah, for those “Try the Whitepages” moments, you might like to give this website a go. It’s called “Let me Google that for you” and it helps makes the point in a gently amusing way!


  • Mark W

    As a parent in the 20th century, my kids would ask for help with their homework on (eg) Axolotls. We’d get out the animal books we had at home and search through them. Not wanting to just simply give answers, I’d show them how to find knowledge. Sometimes we’d walk down to the local library and they learnt how to use the reference section.

    Now as a grandfather in the 21st century, the kids know how to Google “axoltls”. The question they need help with is “which of the 250,000 links do I need to look at to get the answers?”

    Accessing knowledge is easy. The skill they need now is “how to make a choice”. This ability to choose what to look at/ how much time to spend/ how to identify a valuable link, saves them from the feeling of being overwhelmed.


  • Claire

    I learned the hard way the other day about the difference between emailing and phoning when friend rang me, apologising profusely. She hadn’t checked all her emails over the previous four weeks and had just read the one from me telling her that my father had died. I had wondered why I hadn’t heard from her, and also about one of her text messages which didn’t make sense considering what had happened. I was being lazy and the appropriate thing to do would have been to ring her with the news. She felt really bad but it wasn’t her fault. So, now I know that picking up the phone and making that call is important. With emails you can’t be sure it has been read.


  • Claire

    I learned the hard way the other day about the difference between emailing and phoning when friend rang me, apologising profusely. She hadn’t checked all her emails over the previous four weeks and had just read the one from me telling her that my father had died. I had wondered why I hadn’t heard from her, and also about one of her text messages which didn’t make sense considering what had happened. I was being lazy and the appropriate thing to do would have been to ring her with the news. She felt really bad but it wasn’t her fault. So, now I know that picking up the phone and making that call is important. With emails you can’t be sure it has been read.