It’s a statement that people seem to make often. “I think I emailed you this, but I’m not sure.” And it’s one that really surprises me, because it potentially means something rather profound.
Before I continue, let me be clear: I’m not complaining about when people are casually chatting in person or in a meeting. If we’re having a live conversation your memory does not need to be perfect.
Rather, I am talking about when people send an email that says “I’m not sure if I already emailed you or not [on this topic].”
This is not acceptable. Because if you’re going to make the effort to send an email, that means you can also check your sent items to see if you covered that topic already.
There are possible reasons why you might think that I’m set off by this behavior.
Wasting My Time
You might assume that I’m simply annoyed by this behavior because it’s rude. After all, aren’t you forcing someone else to waste their time by sending a message a second time?
And if you’re really not certain, what advantage is there to adding this preamble? Isn’t “I can’t remember if I sent this or not” the same as “Don’t take this the wrong way” or “If you don’t mind me saying?”
In this sense, “I’m not sure if I sent this or not” is the same as “I may have already sent this before, but I’m sending it again because I’d rather you spend time reading it again than me spent time looking it up.”
Another explanation is that “I’m not sure” is a way of saying “I am sure, but I don’t want to expose your lack of organization.”
In this case, the person writing “I’m can’t remember if I sent this or not” is really sending a reminder. But to help the recipient save face, they apologize. “I’m sorry if you heard this already.”
But in truth, neither of these are the reasons why I so strongly dislike “I’m not sure if I emailed you or not.” Instead it’s because it reveals a…
Broken Mental Model for Email
Many people think of their email system as a place to send and receive messages. But email is not merely a place to send and receive messages, and thinking of it as such can be harmful to your productivity.
Instead, email is your personal correspondence hub. Don’t conceptualize your email as a blank stack of paper and a postal box. Instead, think of email as your very own social secretary.
So instead of writing and reading email, imagine yourself having a conversation with the secretary. They wouldn’t send the same message to the same person twice, because they keep track of that sort of thing.
Email Productivity and Thermostats
I’m reminded of how many people misuse the thermostat in their home. The correct mental model for a thermostat is this: the device knows the current temperature, so if you set it to the desired temperature it will turn on the heater or the A/C until the two numbers match.
But many people have an entirely different mental model. They think the thermostat is somehow “motivated” by the difference in the current reading and the desired setting. If the house is 58°F and you want it to be 72°F, it doesn’t help to crank the setting up to 85°F. This does not make the heater work harder. All it does is keep working to change the temperature long after you’ve met your actual goal.
Likewise, your email (and your email partners) will not work harder if you have the wrong mental model. Managing your email inbox requires understanding what it really is.
So before you type “I’m not sure if I sent this or not,” check your sent items. Or better yet, consider whether or not you should be sending an email at all.
Maybe the temperature is just fine the way it is.