April is my month from hell. Not only do I have a business to run, but I also have my wedding anniversary, my small one’s birthday, my husband’s birthday, Easter, and a two-week spring break. This particular April, my in-laws also celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and we threw them a party. It was a lot. So things I normally can keep up on, like responding fairly quickly to emails, dropped like a hot potato.
Drop it like it’s hot. Drop it like it’s hot. Drop it like it’s hot.
I didn’t full-on ignore my inbox, but it did take me more than a few hours to respond; sometimes a few days or even a week, depending on how important I deemed it among all of the other things I had to do.
Imagine how guilty I felt when I received more than one email from people wondering why I hadn’t responded immediately. And I’m talking like next day emails, not a few days or a few weeks. Some people even went so far as to DM me on social media or text me because it’d had been 24 hours.
These are not emails from our clients—they never get ignored. I’m talking about emails where someone asks me for a favor, wants my advice, is pitching Spin Sucks, or has a simple question. The types of things that don’t warrant an emergency for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE helping people and it’s normally not a big deal. But April really did me in. I couldn’t keep up.
The bigger issue is I have created this scenario for myself. Combined, of course, with the always-on, need-to-respond culture in which we live. Is it necessary to respond the same day to all emails? Is it necessary to apologize if we don’t? Why do we do this to ourselves?
We Are All Part of the Problem
When I started my business, I hired a coach to help me develop into a leader. I will never forget when I complained about how my team was working 16 hours a day and was either quitting or burning out.
I exclaimed that it wasn’t expected of them, nor did we have the business to support it, but they were still doing it, and it was burning them out.
My coach asked me how many hours I worked. I admitted it was at least that much. But my excuse was that I was doing two jobs—client work and running the business. He knew he wasn’t going to stop me from being a workaholic, but he could stop my behavior which made my team believe they also had to work 16 hours a day.
The first thing I was to do was pack up my laptop and leave the office at 5:00 each evening. He didn’t care if I went home and worked, but I had to make a show of leaving the office. This would give my team permission to do the same.
The second thing I had to do was save my emails in my drafts folder and not send them until the next morning (this was before you could schedule emails).
It was kind of a pain in the butt for me, but it alleviated their panic when I started showing up for work at 8:00 and left at 5:00. Finally, they started to do the same, and the level of stress decreased dramatically.
Now, of course, you can schedule emails and Slack messages and time them so they don’t all arrive at once. But even better, doing my work that way taught me what to save for in-person conversations or our 121s. Not everything had to be an email or Slack message at the exact moment that I thought of it.
Even though I didn’t expect my team to respond to me at all hours of the day, while I was working, I was creating a culture that unintentionally required it.
We Need to Be Explicit
This is the same culture we live in as a society. Always on. Always responsive. And people panic when they haven’t heard from you in two seconds. It’s not healthy, and it creates an environment where we’re not doing our best work because we’re constantly pulled in a zillion different directions.
In a series of experiments, researchers Laura Giurge and Vanessa Bohns demonstrated what they call “email urgency bias.”
They said, “When people receive emails outside of work hours, they think senders expected faster replies than they do. The more recipients believed they needed to respond quickly, the more stressed they felt—and the more they tended to struggle with burnout and work-life balance.”
The stress is mitigated when the sender sets expectations, such as, “This isn’t urgent. Get back to me when you can.”
I often put that in the subject line: NOT URGENT in all caps.
And, during the work my coach did with me to learn how to leave the office and not send emails after hours, I learned that clarifying expectations also helped to alleviate stress. There is actual science to back up how this works.
Evidence from the transition to remote work during the pandemic shows that when managers are explicit about their communication expectations—including target response times—their employees report being more productive and effective in their daily tasks.
You can do a lot as the email sender to alleviate stress for the receiver. But what if you’re at the receiving end and the sender isn’t so thoughtful?
Provide Some Leeway
One of my very least favorite things is when someone emails, “Bumping this up in your inbox.” No. That just got you to move to the very bottom of my inbox. Your request or need does not equal my emergency. I will get back to you when my team and our clients have been taken care of. Not a minute before.
My second least favorite thing is when someone asks for something and doesn’t provide a deadline. I’ve gotten very good at responding with, “I’d be happy to help. When do you need it back?”
The very worst thing you can tell me is, “When you can get to it.” If that’s the case, I’ll be back in six months. Maybe. Maybe it’ll be a year. Who knows? But give me a deadline that’s at least two weeks out and you’ll have it in your inbox on time!
I practice this with my team, too. “This isn’t urgent, but if you could work on it for the next couple of weeks, we can get it to the client by X date.”
And Stop Apologizing
What’s worse is we apologize when it takes us more than a few minutes to respond to someone’s email, Slack or Teams, or text message. As if we’re curing cancer, the extra time it took to get back to the person is the difference between life and death.
An article by Adam Grant in The New York Times explores this very phenomenon. He says, “Rethinking what counts as late is especially important for people who are prone to beating themselves up for being unresponsive. Namely, women. Women apologize more than men, because they tend to have a lower threshold for what qualifies as offensive behavior. This isn’t in their heads—it’s in the culture around them. We still live in a world that places unfair pressure on women to drop everything for others. When a man takes a week to respond, he must be busy with something important. If a woman takes even a day to reply, it feels as if she’s failing to live up to the duty of care.”
Last weekend, I stumbled across an Inc. article that speaks to this very thing. It talked about how we apologize for the delayed response—even if it’s less than 24 hours, but not during the same day—and that we tend to overexplain.
For instance, “I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. We are in the middle of an office move and it’s taking more of my time than I anticipated.”
The Email Response Protocol
No one needs to know that. They don’t need the apology, either. What the articles suggests, instead, is a five-word formula: Appreciation + the no + well wishes.
This is how it works, “Thank you so much for the invitation (appreciation). I don’t have availability during that time (the no). I know it will be a great event and I am cheering for you from the sidelines (the well wishes).
Notice no apology. No explanation. Just no.
It’s a bigger cultural issue, of course. But if we each take care to both think about the person who is receiving our email and provide context around when we would like a response AND we practice not apologizing or explaining, but just respond when we have time to respond, we’ll be able to make a pretty big societal shift.