5 Ways to Respond to E-mails Without Overcommitting

 In Pei Blog

How to handle those long, convoluted e-mails… and earn back hours of productivity. 

Part 2: Responding

Sometime last year, I sent out a poll asking about fifty coworkers for a quick 30-second response.  Within an hour, I had gotten back at least thirty replies.  It was pretty incredible.

At the same time, it’s no big surprise.  People will usually gravitate first to the tasks that are quickest and easiest to complete.  Try sending an e-mail to a few friends and just ask them for their mailing address — no other strings attached.  Chances are, you’ll get a reply very soon!  

We all want to “check off” our to-do boxes quickly, especially when we feel overwhelmed.  It makes us feel more like we’re managing things and keeping things in order.

But what if we get e-mails that are really long and complicated, or that ask us for 5 different things?  Or what if everybody in our workplace or family seems to be sending all their items to us?  

Here are a couple ways this can sometimes go:

1. We’re reading an e-mail on our phone.  We read about 15 seconds into it, and we think, “I’ll read the rest of this later.”  We click “Next.”

2. We’re sitting at our computer and we think about how to respond.  We start to write.  Forty five minutes later, we’re still sitting there with a partially composed e-mail.  All of a sudden we become very interested in looking up the weather, or what’s happening in the world news.  : )

The problem?  In both scenarios, we may never actually get around to responding, which can have negative consequences for us, our work, and our relationships.  

Fortunately, we don’t have all day to craft long e-mails to everyone who’s contacted us.  And we shouldn’t… we wouldn’t get anything else done!  So here are some ideas for how we can respond in a way that’s responsible and manageable:

  • Move the conversation to the phone. 

    Respond with your phone number and ask them to call you.  Sometimes I say, “I have about 15-20 minutes.  Will that work?” to avoid unnecessarily long, drawn-out conversations. 

  • Ask, “what’s most important here?” 

    If someone’s e-mail is really unclear and hard to sort through, respond and write: “I’d love to help but I need some clarity.  What’s the most important thing you need from me?”  It can narrow the focus for them and for you, so that things don’t take longer than they need to.

  • Ask for more time. 

    If you need more time to think about it, ask them “When do you need a response by?”  Then write it down on your calendar, so you remember to reply by that time.  A late reply is often better than none at all.

  • Direct people to other resources. 

    If you sense that people are asking you to do everything, consider redirecting them to other sources of help — whether that’s another capable person or even a website that has helpful information.  

  • Apologize that you can’t help at this time. 

    If it’s not a matter of the highest importance or urgency (and you just can’t give it the attention it needs), consider writing, “I am so sorry that I can’t help.”  This may be the hardest one to do, for leaders who are responsible and always want to help and serve.  But if I know I can’t do something, I prefer to respond and apologize than to not respond at all.    

As you can see, each situation is different and may call for different approaches.  I make my fair share of mistakes, and I miss things.  I don’t always follow these guidelines perfectly.  But in general I’ve found these tools have helped me to respectfully cultivate relationships with people, without burning out or overcommitting.  

What have you found helpful?  I’d love to hear.  

Check back in the weeks to come for more in this productivity and communication series.  We’ll cover more vital communication skills, and I’ll list more tips I’ve found helpful, plus examples of people who have inspired me with their leadership in this area.  Hope you enjoy it, and that it helps you wherever you lead!  

Part 1: Prioritizing

Part 2: Responding

Part 3: Initiating

Part 4: Following Up

Part 5: Making Ourselves Available

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