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."

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.

[Image: Flickr user Joachim Schlosser]

Add New Comment

6 Comments

  • I actually think the one-time auto-responder message is a respectful way to let people know not to stand by their computer waiting for your response. When I was a sales manager, I actually stopped checking email during work hours when my time was dedicated to the sales professions I was with that day. I think a nice, funny one-time auto-response would have prevented a number of people from being frustrated by me, while only 1 or 2 people may not appreciate the auto-response.

  • shuet

    Personally, I find these auto-responder emails quite irritating. They should only be used when delivering information of note or exception, e..g on holiday, maternity leave, left the company etc. The ones that say 'got your email, get back to you in time' is just annoying. I read 'I'm dead busy, so don't hassle me'.

    To drive down my emails, I unsubscribe to newsletters that I don't read regularly, use WhatsApp group with people where decisions/discussions don't need an email trail, and try to collaborate with Cloud software like Asana. Or use phone more. Anything to drive down emails coming in!

  • There are many useful Autoresponders that work for leads and marketing. I mean, the right way to do it is "Opt-In" so those receiving them actually want to receive them. Pretty much all other Autoresponders are annoying, you're right.

    Good "Opt-In" Autoresponders are usually in a series like a list of training emails (that come together to form a workshop) or useful ones that tell you when your account or warranty is about to expire or something.

    This training course fills you in = http://creativeagencysecrets.com/your-guide-to-autoresponders/

  • Jennifer Petry

    I do sales and am away from my email a lot, so I only set my auto response when I know I will be out on appointments for most of the day or have a big project to work on.

  • I like Lisa's response too. I use a combination of Gmail filters and Boomerang for Gmail. Not to sound dramatic, but it changed my life. For example, the problem with email is not getting too much, but getting too much from people that should not be emailing you. Filters help hide these emails so you can respond on your time. You can check this out once a day. If Larry Page sends you an email,. you'l see it right away. If [insert control freak customer with too much time on their hands] emails you, you can filter them and respond on your time.

    Boomerang is excellent b/c nothing slips through the cracks. It's especially helpful when I respond to people at night. It does not look good to send someone an email at 9pm. I schedule these for the morning and it 1) looks more professional 2) helps so eliminates the response email at 9:05pm that I definitely do not want to see until the morning.

  • Autoresponder from an email sent to a company = expected and confirms the email went through. Autoresponder from an individual = makes the recipient feel like you think your time is more valuable than theirs and that they are just one of the many emails you get that you'll find time to get around to.

    It's a perception thing. Even if people wait a week for a response, it "feels" better than getting a generic auto reply. Unless you are on leave or ill, I wouldn't do it.