Don't Respond to That Email Right Away

The science and benefit of waiting in the digital age

Time is something that none of us have, yet somehow we feel constantly obliged to respond to an email the minute it is sent. Our inboxes turn into our lives, and if we don't respond right away, they'll get lost in the ether. There's the 24-hour rule, where you have to get to all of your emails within a day, but are there exceptions?

You may think that responding right away gives you a competitive edge. It could mean you are always on top of everything and you don't let anything go by unnoticed or unacknowledged. This is great, but there are a few problems that can arise based on this philosophy.

The sender could think your task took zero effort.

Even if it did, valuable work is recognized by the time it takes to complete it. If someone wrote a book in one day, you'd have a hard time believing it was any good. And if it was, well, you have us fooled.

You could make an (embarrassing) mistake.

We all know that rushing to get things done makes us more vulnerable to mistakes. We're not just talking typos, but what happens if you accidentally send a message to the wrong person with confidential information in it? What happens if you're badmouthing your coworker and hit "send" instead of "delete"?

You could come up with a better answer if you wait.

For emails that require thought, you should milk it within reason. If you're asked for an opinion or recommendation, putting a lot of time into it will make the requester think that you've really taken the task seriously. If you whip off a dinner recommendation in five seconds, you may come up with a better place twelve minutes later.

Here's how to combat the email immediacy issue.

Give an estimated delivery date.

You don't have to have projects done within the day that they are assigned. Respond that you will get it done by this date. Then flag it to put in your Priority file.

Give yourself follow-up reminders.

If you're thinking about how to respond to an email but are wrapped up in another task, mark it as unread and enter a follow-up reminder on your calendar.

Send "I'm still thinking about it" emails in the interim.

Without going overboard, if you're still thinking about an issue and are worrying that the sender thinks you've completely dropped the ball, send a courtesy email that says you're still thinking and you're nearly finished. Remind them that the time you take to formulate a response is valuable. That's what they're paying you for.

Having your inbox up all the time can distract you from getting your other tasks done. So deal with email at a few specific points throughout the day.

It's not an emergency. It's just email. Take your time.

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