Thursday, December 18, 2014

FAQ: How do I deal with expectations that I will instantly respond to incoming emails?

This post is the first of an intermittent series that will be based on questions I am asked frequently (hence, "FAQ") at workshops and by my coaching clients.  

Today's question (and one of the most common I'm asked):


Dear Susan,

How do you block off time to not answer emails so that you can do other work, and not be viewed as unresponsive?  I find that if you don’t respond to emails quickly, people get the impression you are not working, ignoring them or something negative along those lines.

Thanks, L


Dear L,

Great question.  The answer is complex.

Two truths: 

(1)  Responding to each email the instant it arrives is both impractical and impossible (because you are obviously not always at your email every minute).  

(2) Most important work requires focus. 

Good practice guidelines: 
  • Do email in batches rather than one at a time.
  • The frequency of batches depends on the type and volume of messages you receive: some people can get away with once a  day, while for others, every hour is required.  Three times a day works for most faculty members and business people.
  • When you are doing work that requires focus, you should remove email from your environment during the time you are working.

Despite these truths and good practice guidelines, many workplace cultures have evolved (devolved? ) to the point where an instant response is the expectation, and many of us have developed an understandable fear of delay.

Strategies to modify urgent expectations:

1. Let people you frequently correspond with know you will generally check your email every (one, two or three) hours, and if they need something more quickly, to please call.

2. Consider adding a statement about your usual response time to your email signature block.  You'll have to decide if that is acceptable in your workplace.

3. Only if you must:  Scan your messages every 30 minutes, looking only for urgent messages, based on the subject line.  

You could do this even while doing intensive work, if you follow the Pomodoro method of working for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break, and if you stick to dealing only with the urgent messages so that you don't get pulled off course.

4. If you are uncertain your supervisor will approve of these methods, have a talk with that person saying out that you would like to both be responsive AND still do high quality work, and ask if they have other approaches that might work.

And finally, its worth a try...

... to see if you can interest your boss and your colleagues in this topic. Suggest a group discussion about the pros and cons of expecting instant responses, and think about developing new norms for messages sent within the group.   

Best of luck,   Susan

What do you think? If any of you have other suggestions, or responses to the ones I've made, let me know.

And, if you want to pose your own question, just send it along in the comments, or write to me directly at  .