There Is Something Worse Than Being Labeled Unresponsive

This article suggests that there is “nothing worse than being labeled unresponsive,” a suggestion that proves false on its face, as there are a lot worse things one’s peers might label them. The article also offers rules for responsiveness, getting them exactly backwards.

For starters, how about “completely unproductive” as something worse than unresponsive. Or, let’s try “distracted beyond belief.” You might want to avoid “lacks focus,” or “I have never seen their face in a meeting because they live in their inbox.”

Can you imagine anything worse than working on low-value transactional communications over the crucial outcomes you are responsible for generating? Can you imagine asking someone to trade their highest priorities and critical outcomes to respond to a message based on nothing more than an arbitrary set of rules driven by technologies? That would be worse and by the largest of margins.

The High Price of Technological Communications

With no cost to the sender, one is allowed to send a message to another person, imposing a responsibility on the receiver to open the message, read it, determine what it means, decide what needs to done, decide when they have time to honor the request, and respond accordingly. One message is not a problem, but it’s impossible to underestimate the burden created by 180 notes or more, spread across different inboxes.

Every message you send creates a burden on the person receiving it, and every message you receive creates the same responsibility for you. Which means, the content should be worthy of the burden, and we should spend more time determining the right medium for the message we are sending.

The tools we use have eliminated the barriers of time and space. Let me say this another way. For all the tools provide us, they also eliminate our time, and they eliminate our space, which you might think of as “margin,” the space to stop and think and do cognitive work.

A Better Set of Rules for Responsiveness

The onslaught of technologies and the proliferation of inboxes (email, text message, Slack, Google Chat, LinkedIn, Facebook, and voicemail) increases the number of messages one must process, as well as the increasing volume through each of these channels.

The rules for responsiveness cannot be determined by the available technology, which continues to increase both the ease and the speed in which one can communicate. The idea that a text should “probably” be answered in an hour and email in twenty-four hours is a perfect example of what is wrong with this line of thought. These “rules” are completely devoid of context. I respond to “Hi Dad!” faster than any other text messages. I hope you respond to “Hi Mom” equally as fast.

We all have obligations to the people in our lives. However, we also have obligations to ourselves, our purpose and meaning, and our priorities and responsibilities, one of which is the things we need to do for other people—but not the only one.

When you are processing the messages from some people, you have decided not to work on the more valuable work that creates even greater value for another set of people—people with whom you are also obligated.

Better rules might be to respond based on the context of the message.

  • Is it a communication about something important and strategic to you or the other party?
  • Is it time sensitive and will something be lost if your response isn’t immediate?
  • Is it a routine communication that costs you or the sender nothing even if it takes a few days to respond?
  • Does the message require a response?

There are better ways to think about your obligations to other people. One of those might include assuming good intentions of others, recognizing that we are all doing more with less, and more importantly, that time is a finite, non-renewable resource. Instead of believing them to be unresponsive, you might assume they are busy doing meaningful work and that they are trying their best to make good decisions about the choices they make.

On average, a human being lives around 4,160 weeks. No one’s death bed regret will be: “I wish I’d have had time to get to inbox zero . . . oh, and someone clear my text messages for me when I am gone.”

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Filed under: Productivity

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