Despite the challenge from communication options like texting and collaboration platforms, email is still thriving. And like everything else, you can automate it with prewritten responses, even specifying different messages for different lists of people. But is this really beneficial, or is it a serious case of seeing technology through rose-colored glasses? 

Why automation is a fantastic option.

Automated responses allow you to:

  • Save time--There's no need to spend time manually reading and writing your reply. You can use the time you free up to pursue more creative and fulfilling tasks.
  • Identify preferences--Your message can communicate what you want others to do, such as when to contact you, who else to contact, or even protocols for specific projects.
  • Control new contacts--You can direct cold-callers to other platforms or indicate a limited scope of messages you'll personally respond to.

Taken together, this means that you have clear boundaries. And that makes a huge difference in feeling like you're in control instead of being controlled.

Why you might want to take a hard pass

Despite the advantages of automating your email responses, there's one huge con--your impression of humanness and authenticity can go out the window.

Real responses give people a sense of validation and inclusion--they tell your recipient that you saw them, that you believed they were worth the time to engage with. By contrast, an automated reply has the connotations that your recipient has nothing to make them stand out, and to a degree, that you're too egotistical to lower yourself to bother with them. And while those connotations aren't necessarily true, they can turn people off from continuing to try to connect with you and from connecting you to others who could be assets to you.

The happy medium.

While some wildly successful leaders like Barbara Corcoran have no qualms about automation or even auto-deleting, I don't believe you have to take sides. It's simply a matter of using the automation as a pause button.

So here's what I do. I tighten up my filters and mark spam as much as I can to reduce the number of messages I get in the first place. Then I set aside some time each day, typically at the very end of the work day, to tackle my inbox--that might be 15 minutes or as much as an hour. This starts with a quick scan of the inbox to identify priority messages I can't miss. I toss those quickly into a separate folder and answer them first. I'll give myself a day or two to get through anything that's left. I usually don't worry about backlog beyond that and will typically delete it, because I believe that people will send a followup or call if they actually believe their message is important enough. But every message I send includes a signature that very clearly indicates I cannot respond after 6:00 p.m. on weekdays or at all on weekends.

After 6:00 p.m., that's it. The auto message goes up. Within that message, I reiterate not only when I can respond, but also why I don't (I need work-life balance!). It's my hope that, by including that simple statement, I'll not only teach people how to treat me, but also  encourage them to treat themselves with the same respect and quit the after-hours racket.

Is the solution perfect? Nope. It doesn't accommodate people in time zones halfway across the world, for example. But it means I don't have to worry about my inbox ballooning too horribly, and that the people who respect my boundaries are rewarded with freer, personalized, and more detailed feedback that's actually helpful. My philosophy is essentially quality over quantity--I would rather respond to fewer people authentically than respond to everyone badly. Be real as much as you logistically can, and then use your automated responses to draw the line, rather than as a default.

Published on: Jul 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.