Most ‘out-of-office’ auto-responders are a good remedy for insomnia. They read something along the lines of:
‘I am travelling for work until December 15. During this time, I will have limited access to email. If you need something urgently, please contact Gertrude on the administration team. I will respond to this email upon my return.’
Yawn. They are all the same.
I think because someone once used this format at the time of the inception of the auto-responder, it became the default. And almost nobody questioned it.
I came to this realisation a couple of years ago. I was writing my own boring out-of-office message and thought, hang on, literally hundreds of people are going to be reading this. Maybe this is a great opportunity to include something interesting and bring a smile to people’s faces. Because let’s face it, out-of-office messages generally do the opposite on both counts.
At about the same time, I was experimenting with different ways of structuring my workday. I had been influenced by Paul Graham’s post about ‘maker’ versus ‘manager’ time and had started trying to spend my mornings in maker time and out of my inbox. Given I wasn’t planning on checking emails in the morning, I thought I would create a permanent auto-responder so no one would expect an urgent response from me. It read:
If you sent this email before lunchtime, I won’t have seen it. This is because I am on a mission to make my mornings more focused and less reactive. I try to spend my mornings in maker time and my afternoons in manager time.
If you do need something urgently, please contact the awesome Alex, my EA, who unlike me, still checks her emails all day.
The response to my message was instant. Literally, every day, people would reply to my auto-responder saying how much they loved it and that it made them think about how they structured their day. Some even said they forwarded it onto their team to read. Although the irony of having an auto-responder that was generating more emails was not lost on me.
Seeing the impact an auto-responder could have motivated me to constantly change it and keep inserting new and interesting research findings or helpful tips. I began to see my auto-responder as a really powerful communication tool that could help more people re-think the way they designed their workday.
At the beginning of every month, I revise my auto-responder to include something new. I’m also mindful there are some people (such as my team) who email me almost every day and I want to try to keep things somewhat fresh.
So the next time you go into your email settings to schedule an auto-responder, think carefully about what you write. See if you can include a little gem of knowledge. Or at very least, try to bring a smile, not a yawn, to the person receiving it.
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