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How I Got Better at Replying to Email

I used to be really horrible about replying to people. This was linked with my anxiety—I’d get an email I didn’t know how to deal with, and I’d just sit on it until I thought I could give some good news. Turns out that others found my lack of response more nerve-wracking than getting a disappointed response, so I got fired from a couple projects.

I suppose turnabout is fair play, and I’ve had to deal with my share of that as a developer and publisher. I try to be sympathetic, since I know what it’s like to deal with anxiety and try to manage disappointment with overpromising and overworking. I tweeted this last night, mainly because that’s what I was doing at the moment:

And I want to unpack that.

First, when I get a pertinent business email that requires my response, do I think you can fully respond in a reasonably short time? For me, that short response time is at most four hours from when I see it, based on what I’m doing and what context I’m in. If not, I send an acknowledgement that I received it and either when a reply can be expected or what actions need to be taken for a reply to happen. If so, I don’t bother with a separate acknowledgment email.

Now, if I think you can respond in that short timeframe but don’t, then I stop what I’m doing, assume I underestimated what was needed to be done to send a full reply, and send an acknowledgment response.

Once I send an acknowledgment, I flag the time or action needed. That’s where Google Inbox’s snooze feature really comes in handy, when the issue is that I don’t have the time to respond until that evening, the next day, or after I’m back from a convention. For task-gated replies, I add a note on a to-do item.

Finally, I follow up with a full reply. This sounds obvious, but can be the hardest part. And if I am delaying more than I indicated, I have to seriously think about what’s going on right now that caused the delay, and if I need to adjust my timelines either with respect to this project or in consideration of any external factors going on—like if I’m bogged-down ill.

This won’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t even always work for me, but putting a particular soft process in place for dealing with email response has helped me get a handle on other, larger scheduling issues. Hopefully something like this will work for those of you who are struggling as I did.

—Ryan

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One Response to How I Got Better at Replying to Email

  1. That’s a remarkably GTD-like process (sometimes also called ‘inbox zero’). I find it invaluable not just for getting things done but also for having an increased awareness of the general goings on at work. I also think (as you note) that people appreciate having their request acknowledged even when it can’t be addressed right away, which helps create an environment of trust.