This Could Be Why Your Boss Never Responded To Your Email

Illustrated by Austin Watts.
In the search for a reliable way to stay at ye olde "inbox zero," we've tried pretty much everything. But, new research suggests that struggle isn't entirely our fault: Instead, our replying habits may have a lot more to do with circumstances than our organizational tactics, reports Popular Science.

For the study, soon to be presented at this year's International World Wide Web Conference, researchers went through 16 billion emails making up conversations between two billion Yahoo Mail users. Specifically, they looked at the amount of emails received, how long people took to reply, and the length of their replies — to build an idea of the different ways people use email.

Results for replying patterns were surprisingly optimistic: 90% happened within a day, and half were within 47 minutes of the original email. As people got more emails, they tried to compensate by replying at the same speed or even faster. But, when their inboxes got to a certain point of overload, they couldn't keep up anymore — they started responding to a smaller percentage of messages and used shorter replies. 

As anyone who's been on the wrong end of a "reply all" mishap knows, email threads can become monsters of their own. This study found that replies were generally shorter and faster as a thread went on, and people started to respond in similar ways. But, once it hit the middle of the thread, responses diverged. The very last message was often the slowest one to be sent. 

Of course, the study has its limitations — one of the most obvious being the use of Yahoo email accounts as opposed to, say, Gmail. However, this study did break down results by age, finding that younger people replied more quickly: Those between the ages of 20 and 35 took just 16 minutes on average, while those over 51 took over 40 minutes. And, the fastest replies came from mobile phones and tablets rather than desktops. 

More than anything, the study proves the existence of "email overload" and that it can really affect the quality of day-to-day communication: When you get to that point of inbox insanity, your ability to reply with any sort of verbosity or tact goes out the window. If you feel yourself slipping, maybe it's worth it to take this weekend off(line).

More from Mind


R29 Original Series