If you work in an office, you can close your door or slip in a pair of headphones to let others know that you are too busy to be disturbed. Wouldn't it be nice if you could send the same signal via email? Now you can, with Courteous.ly, a free cloud-based service that lets others know where your email load stands so they can wait to contact you.
Courteous.ly is a research project headed by Associate Professor Eric Gilbert of Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing. It is available for free to the public. It currently works only with Gmail and Google Apps email, though support for other types of email accounts may be added in the future.
Once you sign up for Courteous.ly and allow the service to access your email, it analyzes your inbox to determine your current email load. By default, it measures your email load based on how many messages are in your inbox, but you can also tell it to measure the number of unread messages and how many messages you have recently sent. Once you sign up for the service, it takes about 12 hours before it is up and running; Courteous.ly spends that time analyzing your email patterns so that it can determine what is normal for you. Once it determines your baseline activity, Courteous.ly updates its rating every 10 minutes.
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I found Courteous.ly's rating scale, which uses "light," "normal," or "heavy" to describe your email load, to be very accurate. It rated my load as heavy when emails were flowing in frequently and I had many messages unread. Once I had time to respond to emails and file messages into folders, Courteous.ly appropriately rated my email load as "normal."
Courteous.ly delivers this information through a custom link for your account; to share the information with your correspondents, you have to send them the link. But getting people to click a link that arrives either in your email signature or in an auto-response that you set up could be a challenge, especially as we've all been trained not to click on unfamiliar links that arrive by email. You can share the link via Facebook and Twitter, too, if you'd like the share the information with a wider circle of contacts.
Courteous.ly also lets you offer people two options for corresponding with you: it tells them they can put "[whenever]" in the subject line of their email, and their message will be held for delivery until your email load is back to normal, or they can put a one-sentence question in the subject of their message, and have it delivered to the top of your inbox.