Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Some thoughts on preventing email backlogs

Have you ever put off responding to an email for longer than you should?

Is there anyone that has never done this?  

I recently described a method for eliminating a backlog of deferred emails. (Make a list of the messages, and then plow through them in assembly-line fashion.)

This works, but wouldn’t it would be better to avoid backlogs?

I still let backlogs develop more often than I would like. I recently wondered about whether other people have this problem - which I suspected was true. And, what types of messages trigger a “non-response.”

So I asked my next client Amelia if she had a problem with deferring email responses. She gave a resounding “YES!”

And, she immediately rattled off these six messages types that cause her trouble:
  • The requester is asking about something that is not part of her job.
  • The message looks long and/or complex, and she avoids reading it.
  • She can’t tell what the sender wants.
  • She thinks the response will take a long time to write.
  • She plans to say “No,” to a request but is uncomfortable saying so.
  • She thinks that her response will unleash an avalanche of back and forth messages, or, as I call it, the “ping pong” effect!
I thought "Wow - these all are on my list as well!"

At that moment, the idea for this post was born

Not So Fast!

"Isn't it OK to defer responding to some messages?”


The most common reason is that you are not yet prepared to respond, because you need to do something else first. You and your partner are invited to dinner next Wednesday, and you need to check with them. You are asked for input on a manuscript, and you have to read it and add your suggestions. You are asked for a decision, and you have to do some research and think. And so forth.

If I need more than a day or two, I usually send a brief message to say when I will get back.

Here, we are discussing procrastination: “to be slow or late about doing something that should be done.”

So, when does a legit deferral change into “it's been too long?” I can just feel it. 

I bet you can too.

Now, back to the coaching session.

For the rest of the session, Amelia and I talked about ways she could overcome her six “deferred response” triggers.  Here is what we came up with.

1 . The requester is asking about something that is not part of her job.

Hurray!  She should pass on the message to the correct person. 

I sometimes obsess over how I could take care of the request so that I don’t have “bother” someone else. If it is their job, it's not a bother!

2. The message looks long and/or complex, and she avoids reading it.

The only option is to dive in and soldier through. Sometimes it can help to skim the message to see if there is a clear “ask.” If there is, that will help her make sense of the rest of the message.

3. She can’t tell what the sender wants.

I recommended that she immediately write back to clarify. Sometimes you have an idea but aren’t sure. If so, say something like “I think you want the reports from 2017 and 2018, but I want to make sure that is correct.”

4. She thinks the response will take a long time to write.

I suggested three options :
  • My “go-to” approach is to immediately write a quick “bad draft” of what I am thinking I might say, either by hand or in a note app. (You can also do it in the "reply" screen, taking care not to accidentally hit "send!")
Most of the time I find that this draft only needs a little editing to be ready. Otherwise, I discover what I need to do next, for example, more thinking or research, or other tasks before I can reply. In either case, I have a path forward.
  • Make a phone call or schedule a meeting, so that you can clarify and answer questions in real-time. 
  • For frequent requests, I recommended creating template responses. Both Outlook and Gmail have an option to save templates for future use.

5. She plans to say “No,” to a request, but is uncomfortable saying so.

Usually, this is when the requester is someone we want to have a good relationship with. Whole books have been written about how to decide when to say “no,” which was outside the scope of our session that day.

What I did suggest is that once she has decided, she should not dally in sending her response. The sender needs to move on and find someone else!

I shared a method I developed for another client who gets frequent invitations to give talks at other institutions. She knows she can't agree to every request, because of the time taken away from her own work. But she puts off the reply because it is painful.

We crafted a template that conveyed “thanks very much, this sounds like a great project, I value our relationship, but I won’t be able to do it this time.” When it’s time to say “no,” the template makes it easier to get started.

I suggested to Amelia that if she gets frequent requests for something she never wants to do, she could also make a (firm but polite) template for those as well.

6. She thinks that her response will unleash an avalanche of back and forth messages - the “ping pong” effect!

Again, three options:
  • Just because she replied immediately does not mean she has to reply immediately again. If there is going to be a significant delay, write back saying “I’ll get back to you tomorrow,” or whatever is true.
  • Pick up the phone (or schedule a meeting).
For example, instead of: “Would you like to have lunch next week?” Try this: “Would you like to have lunch next week? If so, what about Tuesday at noon at the India Café on Iowa Ave.? If the day, time or restaurant don’t work for you, send me another plan that works for you.”

7. And one more, from my list: The “3 tireds:”

Tired of this email string with John
Tired of John
Just plain tired…

The key feature of the “tireds” is that you know what you want to say, but you just can’t get yourself to say it. Because you are tired. It's emotional/energetic, not a lack of knowing what you want to say.

The solution? Recognition that this is the problem. Then, you can choose to either plow through with the response, or, take a break and come back later the same day.

What you can do next.

Before you defer a reply, stop and ask yourself why you want to do it. Do you need to prepare before responding, or, are you procrastinating?

If it’s procrastination, see if one of the suggested approaches will help you move forward.

If it’s something else, see if you can come up with your own plan to try.