One thing that many people fail to realize is that email was never meant to
be “real time”. The entire email infrastructure is built to expect and properly
handle delays ranging from minutes to hours to even days. While most of the
time email arrives nearly instantaneously, the fact is you can’t count on
Understanding that can be very, very freeing.
We’ll look at this from two perspectives: what email delays can mean to you
as a sender, and how understand that email can be delayed can affect how you
work with email as a recipient.
Email is never urgent? “But I can mark is as urgent” I hear you saying.
All that really does is place a little red exclamation mark next to the
message in your recipient’s mailbox. (Or some other indicator, depending on the
mail program your recipient uses.) It certainly doesn’t cause your email to
arrive any quicker. It doesn’t move it to the head of some line, or do anything
other than maybe give your recipient a visual cue that you think what you’re
saying is important.
And it certainly doesn’t avoid any email delays.
So again, I say: so what?
The fact is, if you need someone to get your message in minutes,
then email’s the wrong tool. If what you need to communicate is urgent and
needs to be disseminated quickly, you can’t count on email. You can use it, and
“most of the time” it’ll be fine … but you can’t count on it. I guarantee
that at some point an urgent message will be delayed when you least expect it –
and it won’t be a mail system failure at all.
Email is what’s called a “store and forward” system. When you send an email,
it’s received by a mail server, stored for some period of time, and then
forwarded on to the next server in the path to get your email to your
recipient. Finally it lands on the recipients mail server, where it’s stored
until the recipient downloads it (another kind of “forward” to their inbox), or
reads it on-line.
Those “periods of time” that a server might hold on to your message before
forwarding it are typically very short, but there’s really no guarantee that
they will be. There could easily be any of a number of legitimate different
mail server delays along the path that your email will take to get to your
recipient. That’s not the system being broken, that’s how the system works.
And of course on top of that, your recipient could simply be choosing to
check email less frequently than you might need.
One of the huge benefits of email is that it puts the recipient in control
of when they might want to read and/or deal with their incoming message. That’s
not something you as a sender can count on, or change. Instead, you need to
deal with it.
If something is truly urgent, then pick a more appropriate tool. Perhaps
instant messaging, perhaps a phone call, perhaps a walk down the hall. All of
these are “real time” direct communication, with no multiple step storage
Actually, that whole section for the senders was really for you. Why?
Because you, too, need to know that email should never be relied on to be a
“real time” communications tool.
And that realization, my friends, is very, very freeing.
The reason I absolutely love email is very simple:
When I send email, I get to write it when I feel like writing it, and my
recipient gets to read it when they feel like reading it. I’m not intruding or
interrupting what they might otherwise be doing.
When someone sends me mail, I get to read it when I feel like reading it. I
can choose to, or choose not to, depending on whatever else is going on in my
life. And I get to choose when, how or even if to reply.
Email really puts both sender and recipient in positions of control, as long
as they realize that the cost of that control is the potential delay between
sending and reading.
Why do I call this so “freeing” for recipients?
Be cause you get to choose.
You choose when, how, and what to send, you choose when to read, and you
choose when, how and wether to reply. It’s all in your control.
And yet, for something that you have so much control over, many people feel
enslaved by their email, feeling that they having to read quickly and respond
to everything. That’s simply not true. You don’t need to be constantly
checking email (unless you want to), and you don’t need to reply to everything
(whether or not you want to).
Let’s put it this way: you wouldn’t use email to call 911 for a
life-threatening emergency, and neither should the people sending you
So why act like email is that time critical? Why choose to deal with email
as if it were a real time communications tool, when by its very definition
it cannot be?
Let it go.
Read your email. Reply to your email. Send your email. But do it on your
terms and your schedule, not someone else’s.
So what if it the situation really is that important? What if it
really is a 911-like situation where they need you now?
Email’s not the right answer, regardless of how you use it.
They’ll find another way to reach you.
They might even pick up the phone.