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When Should You Reply to Email?

cat at laptop

An uncomfortable truth about the modern workplace is that many people are buried under a seemingly-endless flow of email. Reading it, responding to it, and managing it can take a lot of time unless you have a good system in place. Today I just want to focus on the question of when you should respond to email.

Reply to email on your own schedule, not whenever your software notifies you a new item has arrived. The most important way to gain some control over the firehose of email is to set aside blocks of time for processing email: looking over your inbox, prioritizing the messages you need to respond to first, and then making decisions about them. Unless responding to email is actually your first priority in your job, turning off email notifications on your computer or phone will immediately allow you more concentrated focus on whatever tasks you’re doing.

Email will fill as much time as you give it. Use a timer to stay focused on processing your inbox.  Many people find that defining a few set times during the day for handling email allows them greater focus on other tasks during the rest of the day.

According to David Allen’s two-minute rule, if you can respond to an email in two minutes or less, you should reply right then during your email processing time. Emails that will require more thought or time for a response should be scheduled for a separate block of time. Moving back and forth between making decisions about your inbox and trying to write a complex response will hinder your ability to do either kind of task.

Create a reasonable response window for yourself that meets the needs of your work situation. This helps you plan your email time, and it can also help those you routinely correspond with, as they learn when they can expect to hear back from you. For example, I tell my students that I will respond to their emails within 24 hours. You might choose different time frames for different people (collaborators, colleagues, students, etc), which can help you prioritize your responses.

Get clear about which emails you do not have to respond to (announcements, listserv communications, etc), and read them in batches so that you can quickly collect any useful information and delete the rest.

Use scheduling tools like Doodle and time zone converters to simplify setting up meetings.

When appropriate, consider moving some email conversations to another medium, such as an in-person conversation or a video call. Some teams might find communication tools like Slack helpful.

Finally, an interesting research study recently summarized on the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business website suggested that when higher-status people in a collaboration delayed their response to messages, their delay added to their perceived competence, but when lower-status people responded with delay, they were seen as less competent. This study was conducted in 2006 with instant-messaging technology, rather than email, but it might be suggestive for email usage as well. Consider the hierarchies within a group email conversation in order to assess your reactions to the contributions of others, as well as in deciding when and how to respond yourself.

[Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user Melinda Seckington]

Do you find email overwhelming? Let us know in the comments!

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