Please Don’t Text Me

In the olden days, a typical worker’s desk had an “inbox” and an “outbox.” The “inbox” represented things that needed to be dealt with, and the “outbox” represented things that were done. When email came along, its designers wisely emulated this metaphor.


Your email inbox represents everything you haven’t dealt with yet, but that needs to be. While managing your email, you’re engaged in an ongoing process of deleting things you don’t need to ever see again, or archiving things that have been dealt with but need to be kept for reference. If it doesn’t need to be dealt with, it has no excuse to exist in your inbox. At the end of every day, what’s left in your inbox is the (hopefully very small) list of things you haven’t gotten around to. But you know they’ll still be there tomorrow – they won’t be lost. Your inbox is, in essence, the most important on-going to-do list you’ve got.

Text messaging apps have no such concept. When a text is new, you get an alert. But the moment you glance at it, there is no mechanism for separating it out from all of the thousands of other texts piled up in your app – it becomes part of the noise. There is no way to know what in your text app needs responding to and what does not.

Therefore, when you send me a text, I have two choices:

  1. Drop everything and respond right now so your message doesn’t get forgotten
  2. Add your message to the “mental stack” of things that need to be dealt with later.

Most of the time, when a new text rolls in, I’m not able to deal with it right now. Ipso facto, most of the time, when a new text rolls in, it’s bound to get forgotten – I’ll never see it again. Unless I add it to my mental stack, i.e. unless I incur a cognitive burden.

Case in point: A few days ago a text rolled in while I was on a long bike ride, asking for information I didn’t have access to at the time. When I arrived home six hours later, that text was the absolute last thing on my mind. It was gone, virtually forgotten. There was nothing to remind me that it ever existed. If it had been an email, the fact of it existing in my inbox would have ensured that it got the response it deserved. The sender had simply chosen the wrong tool for the job.

Because of this reality, when you send me a text, you are putting a burden on me. You are saying, “Drop what you’re doing and respond to me right now, regardless whether it’s convenient for you, lest this communication be forgotten.”

When you email me, you’re saying “Please respond to this when the timing is convenient for you.” With email, I have the luxury of being able to delay my response a day or two if needed. There is no cognitive burden – I don’t have to remember to respond. I’ll know to respond later, because your message is there in my inbox.

So in what occasions is a text more appropriate than email?

  • We’re arranging details about something that’s happening now or in a few hours
  • You just want say hello or share something simple that doesn’t demand an immediate response
  • Computer is on fire.

If you’re planning something that is not happening today, please don’t text. If you’re communicating important information, that needs real typing to work out, please don’t text. If you’re communicating information I might want to be able to refer to later, please don’t text.

I know there’s a lot of talk about how “email is dead” and “email belongs to the old,” and about how some young people actually prefer text over email. I say it’s not about youth – it’s about respecting people’s time, regardless of age (and everyone is busy!). Also: Claims about the death of email are grossly exaggerated – for me and millions of others, email is still the centerpiece of online communication.

I’m not asking you never to text me. I’m asking to ask yourself whether what you have to say rises to the level of deserving a time-stealing text.

21 Replies to “Please Don’t Text Me”

  1. I’m afraid you’ve lost me on this one. (Mind you, I’ve only had two coffees so far this morning!)
    Doesn’t your texting app generate a log screen in the same way your email client does?

    My primary texting device is a Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone and when I click on the message app icon, it opens a page with all my texts (up to a year in age), chronologically listed in all their visual splendour, complete with picture of sender, name of sender and time of transmission.

    Also, since I don’t pay for a dataplan on my cell phone…..text is the ONLY way you can grab my attention for sure when I’m on the move.

    Furthermore, if you had sent me an email, instead of a text, not only would I NOT see it until I’m in front of one of my devices which is connected to Wi-Fi…..chances are good that YOUR email is competing with dozens of others in my Inbox…..which makes your email 1. no more noticeable, 2. no more urgent, 3. no more “findable”, 4. no more retrievable than a text would have been.

    As far as “assuring followup” goes…..I’m no more likely to perform an action in response to an email than I am to a text. If I EITHER type of communication suggest any kind of action at ANY time (including NOW, tomorrow, or NEXT YEAR) I typically copy and paste a few key words from the msg into my Google calendar where I can rely on Google’s default reminder regimen to tweak me……or set up a never-ending daily reminder (if I think I’m going to require numerous “prods” to perform the required action).

    I don’t, at all, understand your plea: “If you’re planning something that is not happening today, please don’t text.” What’s wrong with: “Mom’s birthday is next Thursday. Please remember to pick up her cake on Wednesday. I’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll confirm other details about the party.”

    That message contains information about THREE activities that are not “happening today”……but there’s no reason I can think of that an email would be any more effective. Quite the contrary……for ME, if you’re planning something that is “not happening today”….but might be happening tomorrow……you’d BETTER text me, so I know it’s somewhat urgent.

    That’s MY take.

  2. Interesting mwsmichaelwilliamscott – You have a workflow and relationship to texts that is very alien to me.

    No, the iOS text app does not have a log screen like the one you describe – just a pile of senders. Click on one and it shows their thread. There is no way to delete a text that has been dealt with, so all texts ever appear in the same UI. With email clients, the inbox shows only the messages that have yet to be dealt with. Very, very different.

    No way in hell am I going to go through the painful dance of copying an action from a text app into a calendar or todo list – way too much busy-burden. But if you email me, it ends up in my inbox, and an email inbox is a todo list.

    As for grabbing my attention, YES – that is what a text does. Therefore, a text should only be used if the message rises to that level. The sender should always be asking themselves “Is this important enough to steal the receiver’s attention right now, whatever they’re doing?” 75% of the texts I receive don’t pass that test and are therefore a time-stealing annoyance.

    Reserve texts either for things that can be safely ignored/forgotten or for things that truly are of a timely (right now) nature.

  3. Ah, well…….what can I say: the vagaries of being an Apple fan-boy finally kick in!!
    Go Android, my son. :-)
    Get a buddy to give you a tour of his lovely Galaxy S2, 3, 4 or 5 Messaging app…..and go slack-jawed in wonder of all the functionality that Mr Jobs chose not to give you.

  4. LOL – not to spark a flame war, but I can’t *stand* using Android devices.

    The presence of the equivalent of an inbox (that signified done/not done somehow) would be a great help, if it is as you describe. But it would not be enough for me to start treating text as functionally equivalent to email!

  5. If you tell me how……I’d be happy to “email” screenshots of my text log and Delete screen so you can see the functionality of the Android native Messaging app. (although, if you turn left 90 degrees, then right 90 degrees, you’ll likely find two Samsung phone owners within about 5 feet who will be happy to demonstrate.)

    It sounds as though you may have been “burned” by an Android episode at some time in the past. Was there a particular Android-powered device that steered you to the Apple solution……..or did you just “fall into” the iOS by being a Mac guy?

    I’ve owned SE’s, Mac ll’s, Macbooks and lots of iPods and Airport Expresses……played with lots of iPads…..and use iTunes to stream Radio Paradise all day, every day……so, I don’t think I have any built-in prejudice against the brand; I’ve LOVED a lot of their stuff.

    But I will admit to being cost conscious, and there are times when I think the price premium isn’t justified by a corresponding performance differential.

    Gotta be honest: I have NOT owned an iPhone……and cost and wimpy screen size have been the two biggest reasons to date.

  6. Well, I can’t tell you how since I’m not an Android guy, but on iOS I would hit Main+Power buttons at the same time to take a screenshot, then share the image into a public Dropbox and paste the URL here. But anyway, when I search for “android text app” all of the images make it look pretty much identical in functionality to the iOS text app. So maybe I’m not understanding the difference you’re describing.

  7. OK……I have to believe you’ve had a bad experience with SOME kind of messaging program…..regardless of platform (although your comment ” I can’t *stand* using Android devices” IS a little ‘telling’), so in the event you’ve “been away” from texting, here’s a little update.

    I’ve uploaded a small collection of screenshots that you can refer to, here:

    I’ve labeled these screenshots so that (hopefully) they’re as “self-evident” as possible. (These are taken from my Samsung Galaxy S3, most popular phone series, world-wide.

    You said there is “no way to delete a text that has been dealt with”. You will see in the screens that, quite the contrary, you can delete individual messages…or entire threads, with the click of an ashcan…or by selecting checkboxes…very simple. (Note: only YOU can know whether you’ve “dealt with” the subject in the message. Computers are good…..but not at the “Hal” level yet. :-)

    You seemed reluctant to take information from a text (easily done with “Copy Text” command) and put it into your calendar (as a means of scheduling future events). If you receive an email from a colleague about a meeting coming up in three weeks (or months), how do you now remind yourself to attend? You must copy the key words (name of meeting, date, time) OUT of the email (using either keyboard commands….or your eyes)…..and paste or type them into your calendar. Yes?

    If you are saying you simply leave the email message in your INBOX…..and mark it as UNREAD, yes, that’s a way to remember that action is required. But, in order for this to be effective, you’d have to leave the message sitting there for MONTHS…..cluttering up your inbox. And if you have dozens of “future” events requiring action “IN the future”…….that’s what calendars do best……..not inboxes or even task lists.

    As far as “handling” texts, you can see by the screenshots that you can “Forward” them to other people….you can “Copy” them and email them to yourself (apparently one of your favourites) :-), you can “Search” through them for specific words (e.g. “vinyl lovers meeting”) and just about anything else you could possibly do with an email.

    You might be asking yourself: If I can do anything with a text that I can do with an email……then why would I use text? Well, the overwhelming reason I use it is that it’s FREE. No dataplan required. So my cell phone plan (here in Canada, where we have usurious rates for data) my monthly plan costs me only $25 without data……instead of the $50 I’d have to pay if I had a data plan (which would accommodate email.) Yes, I guess I could scurry to a Macdonalds restaurant or a coffee shop every 1/2 hour and connect to their Wi-Fi so I can cheque my email. I prefer text.

    Bottom line… may be “user preference”…..but, I just wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about the functionality of texting. :-)

  8. mwsmichaelwilliamscott, I just have to ask, because you’ve got me curious: Do you consider both text and email equally appropriate for all situations? Would you be content to ditch email and just use text for everything? Is there nothing anyone texts you that doesn’t make you feel like “This really needs to be in email, not text?”

  9. my main phone number is my Google Voice number, that’s the number I give out. I don’t have SMS on my carrier plan. Whenever I get a text, I also get it in my Gmail. I can reply to text with a text, or in Gmail.

  10. Not sure I understand your post, Da. SMS stands for Short Message Service…….i.e. TEXTING. So I don’t know how you can “get a text” if you don’t have texting capability as part of your cell phone plan.

  11. You looked like unwilling to adopt information from your textual content (easily carried out with “Copy Text” command) and input it straight into ones appointments (as a way connected with booking foreseeable future events). In case you acquire a message from your friend of a getting together with approaching in 3 months (or months), tips on how to today remind you to ultimately show up at?

  12. my principle telephone number is my Google Voice number, that is the number I give out. I don’t have SMS on my transporter arrangement. At whatever point I get a content, I likewise get it in my Gmail. I can answer to content with a content, or in Gmail.

  13. “You looked like unwilling to adopt information from your textual content (easily carried out with “Copy Text” command) and input it straight into ones appointments ”

    Not unwilling to do that, but it would be a huge pain in the ass compared to doing the same on the desktop (it would take probably 5x longer to do it on a mobile device). But it avoids the question: Why in the world would anyone send something like that via text to begin with, when they could have used email, which is a far more appropriate tool for the task?

  14. No offense, Scott, but folks can get a little too hung up on the tools.
    The question I asked you before (and I’m not sure how or if you answered) is, regardless of how you receive notification of a 3-month distant, one-off, meeting…..what do you do when you receive this “notification”?
    Surely to goodness you “move” it somewhere, out of whatever application you received it in.
    You either copy and paste it into your calendar……or print it off and glue it to your fridge…..or write it on the back of your hand……and don’t bath for 90 days! :-)
    I think, as I said before, we all develop communications media preferences based on several criteria:
    1. Familiarity
    2. Accessibility
    3. Cost
    4. Ease of use

    You’ve apparently gotten into a “groove” with email…based on some or all of the above. You obviously have a data plan on your phone……or you wouldn’t be able to receive email remotely.

    I, in contrast, do NOT have a dataplan, because data costs a fortune in Canada. Our wireless providers are monopolistic rapists, so I make do with texts……and I challenge you to give a point-by-point dissertation on why a text advising me of an upcoming meeting (see above) would be any more difficult to “handle” than an email advising YOU of the same thing. In either case, these notices (I hope we agree) are NOT staying in the application in which they were received. They’re being moved to a calendar, a paper diary, a fridge door, a post-it note…..or our foreheads!

  15. Michael, of course I move such a notification into a calendar app, regardless how it arrives. Not sure I see how that’s relevant to the problems, which I’ll reiterate one more time:

    – If the upcoming event is not happening today/tonight, how in the world does its importance rise to the level of warranting interrupting me in the middle of what I’m currently doing? When you text me, my phone buzzes, forcing me to dig it out of my pocket to see what important thing is demanding my attention. That breaks my concentration and workflow. If I then discover the announcement is not something that demands my immediate attention after all, I am annoyed and frustrated at the lost productivity and the context-switching it requires.

    – I get 300-400 emails per day, but maybe 2 or 3 texts per day. Those texts are set apart by being urgent notifications. When you text me, you are saying “Regardless of the standard flow of information through modern life, please deal with this one differently – on a different device, with a different workflow. Why in the world would you do that if your message isn’t urgent or at least timely?

    – By sending me a text instead of an email, you are basically forcing me to deal with a small screen, the slow and frustrating process of keying characters into a phone (one can type accurately on a keyboard, say, 10x faster than texting, right?)

    – Most of the time, we’re not dealing with a simple item that can be added to a calendar and moved on from. More likely, it’s a friend wanting to organize a hike for next weekend or something. Lots of back-and-forth is going to be required to organize. So multiply the hassle and interruptiveness of texts by the number of messages it takes for the group to come to a consensus on the plan.

    – And again, the text inbox has no easy or obvious way to winnow it down to just what needs dealing with, so the potential for the text being missed, lost, never dealt with is very high, compared to the zero-probablity of a communication being missed when sent via email.

  16. Scott, I love your vinyl digitizing project, but on THIS subject, I’m seriously starting to think you’re just pulling our legs in order to generate controversy/readership! :-)

    It’s beginning to sound as though you’re letting your devices determine what’s urgent or important in your life. Only YOU control those variables, Scott.
    For example, just because a package arrives by courier doesn’t mean you have to treat it as “urgent”….it might have just been cheaper for the sender to deliver it that way……(like a text!) Stephen Covey (and most other productivity gurus) teach the concept of time management using an urgency vs importance matrix. (See for a diagram of the four possible categories.)

    A text (OR an email) arriving on your phone might be 1. Important but not urgent, 2. Important AND urgent, 3. Urgent but not important, 4. Neither important NOR urgent.

    As the recipient you have no way of “guessing” which it is……….UNTIL you receive it…..and YOU decide how YOU are going to deal with it.

    You, as the receiver, have no control over which method anyone else, as the senders, use to deliver their message to you. (I guess you COULD send an email to every person on the planet and ask them to only ever email you….but, a little inconvenient. :-)

    Here are a couple of typical msgs you might receive on your phone:
    By text: “Honey, would you pick up a pizza on the way home please”. OK, is this urgent? Yes! Especially if you’re halfway home. Important? Not really. You can always make do with leftovers)

    By email: “Give me a call about our trip tomorrow”. Urgent? Sounds like it. Important? I’m guessing YES.

    By txt: Hey dad, I got an F in Biology today. Urgent? No. Important? Yes. But only for that parental chat tonight.

    By email: Don’t forget to take your car in for its 20K mile tuneup. Urgent? No. Important? Yes, but I’ve got a week or two.

    As for YOUR examples…..above, “When you text me, my phone buzzes, forcing me to dig it out of my pocket to see what important thing is demanding my attention.”
    *****Delivery method has nothing to do with urgency, Scott. YOU are the one who decided to make your phone buzz when a text arrives. If you don’t want it to buzz……TURN THE BUZZER OFF. (You DO have email on your phone, right? Some people’s phones BUZZ when emails arrive; did you know that?)*****

    – I get 300-400 emails per day, but maybe 2 or 3 texts per day. Those texts are set apart by being urgent notifications.
    ****Says who? Only you. I could text you right NOW to tell you I posted this message to your blog; does that make it URGENT? Hardly.*****

    – By sending me a text instead of an email, you are basically forcing me to deal with a small screen, the slow and frustrating process of keying characters into a phone etc.
    ****No. I’m not “forcing” you to do anything. Deal with it whenever you want! Or not at all.*****

    –…..organize a hike for next weekend or something. Lots of back-and-forth is going to be required to organize.
    ****You shouldn’t be using EITHER technology for THIS kind of activity. Use SKYPE or HELLO…or one of the many multi-caller VOIP phone services and make your meeting/hiking plans collaboratively.*****

    – And again, the text inbox has no easy or obvious way to winnow it down to just what needs dealing with, etc.
    *****You’ve just admitted you’re never going to take a text seriously!! Call Obama and ask him how he receives ALL his communications while he’s on the go (i.e. 24/7)… TEXT.

    Bottom line is: Many (if not most) young adults get hundreds of TEXTS per day…..and maybe five or ten emails. Hate to say it, Scott…..but it’s “generational”. (Meaning only: it’s what you ARE used to…..or GET used to!) That doesn’t make younger people smarter than us. It’s just the way they “operate”.

    Maybe it would help if you stop thinking of texts as being URGENT. Just think INSTANT. Someday, you’ll come to associate SMS/texting with the “always on, always-with-you, instant access” technology that BILLIONS of communicators, world-wide, are actively embracing and making work.

  17. @mwsmichaelwilliamscott I think you’re overthinking this. Either that or we’re just on completely different pages. To me it’s a simple matter of politeness and respect for my time. Given that the vast majority of people “take the defaults,” it is the case that for the vast majority of us, our phones buzz when a text arrives but not when an email arrives. When you send me a text, you are *implicitly* asking me to stop what I’m doing and pay attention to YOU right NOW. Therefore a text had better be important enough to warrant both the interruption and the risk of it being not responded to.

    Yes, I could change the buzzer settings, but I don’t want to. Part of the usefulness of texts is that they buzz, signaling that something important is happening that needs my attention now. That’s a great system and I don’t want to break it.

    My rant is basically a plea for people to continue to honor that system, and to act with politeness and respect.

  18. If that’s the case, I suggest you create a standard, automatic “signature” that says exactly that and have it attached to every outgoing message.

  19. Shouldn’t be necessary. 95% of people know how this stuff works and do the right thing intuitively. It’s only a small minority that don’t for some reason and who are the impetus behind this post.

    Besides, using an email .sig would only speak to emailers, who aren’t the problem here.

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