The Goldilocks level of email attention

Everybody has a different way of handling email. There are the inbox-zero people who strive for an empty inbox every day. There is also the opposite of the spectrum, individuals with hundreds or thousands of unread emails.

Independent on which end of the spectrum you are, you are very likely not to be effective with the time you spend on your email. You spend either too much time or not enough time handling emails.

The Goldilocks principle is named by analogy to the children’s story “The Three Bears”, in which a young girl named Goldilocks tastes three different bowls of porridge and finds she prefers porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold, but has just the right temperature. The concept of “just the right amount” is easily understood and applied to a wide range of disciplines […]


What is the Goldilocks level of email attention?

If you did not commit to a deadline to respond to your emails, then take some time. There is no reason to hurry since if it were urgent, the sender would have used a more urgent channel (such as the phone, for example). Email is asynchronous. Therefore people should not expect an instant response, nor should you create that expectation.

A lot of problems solve themselves

“Napoleon directed Bourrienne (his secretary) to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself and no longer required an answer.”

I would not recommend leaving your email unopened for three weeks. But we have all seen it happen during a more extended break: urgent emails arrive in your inbox while you are out of the office, and once you are back, you see in a follow-up message that all is fine. Reason more to let email rest for a while. Before you know it, you are doing other people’s work.

The proper response time to your email should not be too fast or too slow. The faster you respond to emails, the more you will receive. The slower you are, the less likely anybody will rely on you getting back to them right away.

Do not worry if you take 24 or 48 hours to reply to emails (or take more time if that fits your style). What is most important is to be reliable and to be consistent.

And, of course, you can still respond sometimes within five seconds, but you don’t have to.