Years ago, I read a book called The Paradox of Choice, in which the author, Barry Schwartz, describes the very modern dilemma of being paralyzed by choice (you can watch his TED talk on the subject here). Basically, he talks about how in the Western world we are constantly confronted with a nearly limitless array of options, for everything from blue jeans to laptops to flavors of jam at the supermarket.
And rather than making our lives easier, having so many options often stresses us the hell out.
54 Flavors = 53 Losses
Say I stop by the store to pick up some ice cream. If it’s between chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, then my decision probably won’t take very long; I’ll grab the correct flavor (chocolate, obviously) and be on my way.
But if instead an entire aisle is devoted to ice cream, I need to survey the whole frosty field across a wide range of brands, flavors, sizes, and prices. And if, after long seconds (or, realistically, hours) of agonizing internal debate, I go with the 1-quart Granny Ice Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough/Fudge Brownie Swirl for $5.99, I’m much more likely to be dissatisfied with my choice than in the first example when I only had three options to choose from.
This is because we as human beings are notoriously loss averse, and to our stupid caveman brains, all those ice cream options we are leaving in the freezer feel like a loss.
So, a bunch of choices leads to the stress of having to weigh a bunch of different criteria to make a choice, and even after the choice, we are likely to repent the lost opportunity of all of the other choices.
“Does this relate in any way to email?” I bet you are at this point wondering? Yes, it totally does, thank you for wondering.
The Paralysis of “Whenever”
In today’s email status quo, when we receive an email we need to do a few things:
look at the email and decide whether or not to open it based on who it’s from and what the subject is
if we decide not to open it, we have to decide where to put it or just to leave it as is in the inbox
if we do open it, then we need to read it and try to figure out when, if, and how we need to respond
if we decide to do it asap, then we need to drop whatever else we are working on and devote our energy to this email right now
if we don’t get to it right now, then we need to file it away/mark it as unread/make a note on a to-do list/do something to make sure we get back to it in a timely manner
and, as is too frequently the case, we need to decide based on vague hints and clues when and if a response would be appropriate, since the sender didn’t really say.
So, looking back up there where it says that recipients need to do “a few things”, it should actually read “ridiculously too many things”. The recipient has to act like a mind reader for the sender and try to divine when the sender would like a response because in the absence of selection criteria we have no idea what to do. Often times we will default to “ASAP”, which makes us stressed because we feel like we need to get to everything immediately, and if we don’t go with an immediate response we probably feel at least a little ashamed that we haven’t and until we’ve finally sent that email we are thinking about it and worrying about it and, in short, stressing the hell out.
This is not a good thing. Luckily it’s totally fixable.
Clear Expectations: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
We’ve talked before about the lopsidedness between the roles of senders and recipients in email. And that is again the issue here. As long as a sender gives the recipient a clear idea of her expectations, a huge amount of the stress the recipient would otherwise experience is immediately alleviated.
That’s exactly what Timyo helps the sender do: respectfully set clear, straightforward expectations which the recipient sees at a glance in his inbox.
Often times we worry about being bossy, or pushy, and so when sending an email we may err on the side of not bringing up when a reply is desired at all. This is understandable, but it’s also important to realize that setting clear expectations for someone is a really nice thing to do. It saves that person the stress and uncertainty of having to choose when, how, and if to respond to you, and to feel bad about all of the options they ended up not choosing. By setting clear expectations, we give them the gift of one less thing to stress out about.
Okay, that’s it from me; I think I’m going to go buy some ice cream.
Be back in three hours.