Constant Time by dr_bob at Morguefile

! This Message is Urgent

I had a long road trip yesterday, most of it spent on the highway.  It was relatively peaceful and most drivers were mannerly, if often well in excess of whatever posted speed limit there was.  One fellow came up behind me and waggled his lights and, after ensuring it wasn’t the police, I ignored him and continued my overtaking of a slower vehicle.

It reminded me of the e-mail flag that makes a particular message urgent.  Ours have a red exclamation point next to them.  The funny thing about the urgency mark is that it assumes that the person is accessing their e-mail in a way that is timely.  It also assumes that the matter is universally urgent to everyone involved.

The challenge as a recipient is to determine what to do with these urgent requests.  Your customer service-oriented side will want to float these to the top and there may be good reason.  If this is the second message from someone on a topic, they may be trying to get your attention, giving you information that can help you to be more efficient (“hold off “, “change in plans”).  The benefit of the urgent notification is that you see it in in context with the original message, so you will be likely to check it.

But, like the racing car with the waggling lights, the urgency may not relate at all to the content of the message, but to the need of the sender to get something done.  This fails if the matter is truly urgent and the e-mail is not read quickly.  An urgent flag on an e-mail that says “Do this now” does not necessarily get read any faster, particularly if the person does not have immediate access to their e-mail.  If you don’t know your recipient’s e-mail habits, you may not realize that they only check e-mail twice a day, or don’t check it until a certain given time.  Or worse, they are out and you don’t know it.

When I see an urgent e-mail, I do the same thing I do with the racing car.  I triage the e-mail – who sent it, what is the content, what is the context – and then I do a second assessment, essentially to determine how that level of urgency meshes into the other time-sensitive activities that I currently have on the hop.  E-mail doesn’t suggest urgency in the same way a telephone call does.  Who the sender is (police) and what the content is (am I speeding?) will modify the urgency of the message being sent.

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