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My Week Using An Email Autoresponder And Whether I'd Keep Up The New Habit

Here's what happened when we challenged readers, and ourselves, to test "the greatest productivity tool you never thought of."

[Image: Flickr user Joachim Schlosser]

Last week I ranted about the implausibility of reaching inbox zero and challenged readers, and myself, to set up an autoresponder to help manage the daily influx of emails.

I hypothesized that using an autoresponder every day could help me acknowledge the receipt of emailers’ messages and simultaneously manage their expectations for an immediate response.

So what happened when I put this advice to the test?

First, I had to set up the autoresponder. I used Outlook's Out of Office Assistant to automatically send out this message only once to each sender outside my company:

You’re receiving this automated message to confirm that your email has safely evaded my spam filter and made it into my inbox. Hurray!

Since you are receiving this message, there is no need for you to follow up on your email. You may not hear back from me immediately, but you will hear back—I guarantee it!

I appreciate your patience, and I hope you have a swell rest of the day.

Not long after I set up my autoreply I felt a sense of relief, as though the guilt and anxiety about not immediately responding to someone's email that normally lurked in the back of my mind had been washed away.

Reader Keely Bailey might agree, had she thought of this at her previous position.

"I would get hundreds of emails a day and was expected to answer all of them by the end of that day," Bailey writes. "It was a nightmare! An autoresponder would have definitely eased the tension!"

A few days into my experiment and I felt like I was experiencing some serious email zen—until I received my first follow-up email. D'oh!

Point proven: Not everybody cares when you tell them that a follow up email is unnecessary. But at least knowing that my message was out there helped alleviate the guilt of not immediately responding to their inquiry. And I did notice a significant reduction in the number of follow-up emails I received.

I also began to notice how lazy I was getting about checking email. Checking email several times a day eventually turned into merely glancing at my email in the morning and almost completely ignoring it for the rest of the day, which presented some positive and negative outcomes.

Yes, I became more productive in the rest of my daily work—though, not that much more. But because I would only glance at my email for something urgent and ignore the rest, putting off all the bulk of my email until the end of the day left me with what felt like a huge chore at day's end.

What about the recipient?

Reader Scott Souchock also points out that while the autoresponder may be helpful on my end, what of the autoreply's recipient? They get to receive another piece of email that they have to process, read, and delete. So essentially, I'm spamming them! "Are you effin crazy?!?" his email began.

That had not been my intention, though I would argue that my autoresponder would not send multiple messages to the same recipient. But still, yes, I was adding more mail to your inboxes with my autoresponder, and I am sorry.

Souchock offered a simple solution that he considers "much more gracious:" Include a message in your email signature that notes how frequently you check and process email during the day. He believes this is a more efficient and friendly way to manage people's expectations.

The Verdict: I'm not sure if I'll keep using my autoreply, but if I do keep the habit up, I'm resolved to not rely on it quite so heavily. Managing my inbox is going to take a little more thought than that.

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