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The New Auto-Response Movement to End Always-on Culture

Respond on your timetable, not everybody else’s

Last week, I emailed Julia Hobsbawm, author of Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload and I received the following auto-reply:

“Trying to reply like snail mail, not email. If you need me sooner, please text me.”

I loved her message and my email didn’t warrant an urgent text follow-up. Julia was teaching us how to set boundaries with technology in order to be productive in the digital age.

It’s yet another sign people are taking control of the technology in their lives, instead of letting it control them. And a great way to do this is by creating away messages and auto-replies for everyday email, and not just for when we’re away on vacation. And I’m noticing more and more of them, in all shapes and sizes.

Here’s one I got when I emailed Maria Menounos, the Emmy Award-winning journalist and my fellow Greek, who made many meaningful changes in her life after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor (which thankfully turned out to be benign).

“Hi everyone 🙂 Thank you for reaching out. I am rarely checking email so i can focus on projects and life rather than emails :)”

She goes on to list various people that can be of help, depending on the request.

Then there’s this one, which I recently got from Uber’s Engineering Manager Anurag Agarwalla:

“Hi! My wife and I are expecting baby Agarwalla #2 to arrive any minute now. With lots of encouragement from my Uber team I will be taking the fully allotted 6 weeks of paternity leave bringing me back mid June. In my absence here are some folks that may be helpful…”

(Editor’s note: little Radha arrived and she’s beautiful.)

And here’s the email I got when I emailed Denise Morrison, Campbell’s CEO:

“IMPORTANT – PLEASE READ: I check email once at the end of each day. If you are sending something that needs immediate attention, please call my Assistant…Thank you.”

And when I was on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, I learned about several templates that he came up with for his listeners that you can just copy and paste — like this one, short and sweet:

“Due to other commitments, I’m checking email no more than once a week, often less. If it’s truly urgent (cannot wait a week), please call my cell. If you don’t have it, thank you for waiting until I can get back to the inbox.”

What a great trend! When email first expanded beyond academic and tech circles in the 90s, it was a tool, and one that we controlled. The conventions weren’t that different from regular mail, which, after all, email drew its name from.

But as the universe of email, texting, and instant messaging – which has its aggressive sense of urgency built right into its name – has expanded, that sense of control has vanished. We’re now swimming in a sea of alerts, notifications, buzzes, beeps and vibrations that some person, or some app, has requested – no, demands! – our attention.

It’s gotten to the point where if you don’t immediately respond to a text, the sender is practically calling local emergency rooms to see if you’re alright or putting out an amber alert on the highways for you.

And that’s why this auto-reply act of resistance is so welcome. If someone was ringing your doorbell and summoning you to your front door every two seconds, you’d probably disconnect your doorbell. Or move to another house. But most people are still remarkably open about allowing their attention and their time – which is some very valuable real estate — to be summoned by others. Or, as Ashton Kutcher put it in his Thrive Questionnaire, “email is everyone else’s to-do list for you.” And, on the Thrive Global podcast, he told me why he’d reworked his email system so that he was less responsive. “It became an impossible hole to get out of,” he said. “Because then every response I had had three more responses. All I was doing was other people’s work all day long, and I never actually got to the things that I wanted to accomplish.”

It’s a situation we’ve all found ourselves in. But that’s finally changing. The pushback against email started with out-of-office vacation responses, which unfortunately are followed far too often — and far too quickly — by an email which makes it clear that despite the out of office, the recipient is actually on email. That’s why we at Thrive Global created our Thrive Away app. It’s a vacation email tool that gives people emailing you an auto-response letting them know when you’ll be back, who can help them in your absence, and then — the most important part — it deletes the email so you never see it and are tempted to respond. If the email cannot be handled in your absence, the sender can send it again when you return. If it can, then it won’t be waiting for you when you get back, or, even worse, tempting you to read it while you’re away. The tool also has training wheels — an option to archive your emails instead of deleting them.

As vacation auto-responses have become more common, they’ve also gotten more creative. Like this honeymoon out-of-office made entirely of emojis. And as people find themselves living on social media, there are out-of-office announcements there, too. I liked this tweet, which not-so-subtly forces a potential sender to consider how important the message really is: “I’m not in the office right now but if it’s important, tweet me using #YOUAREINTERRUPTINGMYVACATION.”

But the best part of this new auto-response trend is putting it up not because people are on vacation, or honeymoon, or had a new baby, but just…because. Because they’re tired of being distracted, because they want their attention back, and because they’re more productive when they control their own time. It’s all part of finally breaking this cultural norm that arose – without any discussion – that we have to be on all the time.

So yes, let’s continue building this wall around our time and attention (some walls are good) with these auto-response acts of resistance. Send in the best ones you’ve seen, or come up with one yourself – and we’ll publish them on Thrive.

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