Avoiding “sorry for the late response” emails

If I didn’t email you back it means I set your note aside to consider more carefully later, then didn’t. — Michael Green, on Twitter

I read this tweet and smiled, because I’ve done the same thing, as have so many others. Marissa Miller once tweeted, “adulthood is emailing ‘sorry for the delayed response!’ back and forth until one of you dies” and her tweet got shared 27,000 times, so this obviously resonates with a lot of people.

Susanna Wolff recently wrote a humor column in The New Yorker entitled Sorry For the Delayed Response that is full of imagined way-too-late email responses, starting with the following one:

Sorry for the delayed response. I opened your e-mail on my phone while my date was in the bathroom, but then I saw that it required more than a “yes” or “no” reply, decided that was too much work, marked it as unread, and then forgot about it entirely until just now.

So how can we avoid the delayed response syndrome?

Suggestions for email senders

In an article entitled Let’s All Stop Apologizing for the Delayed Response in Our Emails, Melissa Dahl wrote about what she saw as the “real problem with replying to email”:

When … are you supposed to reply? Sometimes people make this clear, explicitly noting that they need an answer by the end of the day, or week, or whatever. But this doesn’t happen as often as it should.

So try helping your email recipients by making it clear just how urgently you need a reply: right now, tomorrow, by a specific future date, etc. You can also adopt the practice that Tsh Oxenreider describes on her blog, The Art of Simple: her friend Sarah ends some emails with “No need to reply!” Not every email requires a response, so it helps to make it explicit when no response is expected.

Also, make it easy for your recipients to see exactly what response is needed. A few days ago I got an email from my brother with five numbered questions, and it was extremely easy to respond quickly — and I knew he needed a quick response because he told me that. Each question was brief, including exactly the information I needed in order to answer. Did I want to go to either of two choral performances (with dates and location provided)? How did I feel about a potential family reunion at a specific place on a specific date? If only all my emails were that easy to handle!

Suggestions for email receivers

If it’s not clear when a response is needed, you can write back and ask. This will help you respond appropriately, and it might also train your correspondents to include this information in the future.

As we’ve discussed before on Unclutterer, you can create your reply faster by using a text expansion tool to handle frequently used text.

But the advice I read that I personally found the most meaningful came from Melissa Febos, writing in the Catapult online magazine and addressing her fellow writers: “Stop trying to get an A+ at anything but writing your best work.” The specific thing you’re trying to get an A+ in may be almost anything, but it probably isn’t email replies. Yes, work emails require professionalism and clarity. But I know I’ve sometimes spent way longer on an email response than was necessary. The latent perfectionist in me likes those A+’s, but I know that my time can often be spent more wisely.

2 Comments for “Avoiding “sorry for the late response” emails”

  1. posted by zilla on

    Stop reading e-mail (and using your cell phone) on the fly, that is, while standing in line, waiting for your date to come back, etc. Treat e-mails the same as snail mail – open them only when you’re sitting down, ready to deal with them completely. This is a problem prety well unique to the new technology that you can read or talk whenever you want, where ever you are. If you want things done right, go back to the old way of reading/talking only when you have enough time to do it, not on the fly, not as something to fill your time.

  2. posted by JEZ on

    A podcast that I listen to (Reply All) started this thing called “Email Debt Forgiveness Day” and it’s actually coming up on Sunday! It’s pretty neat, I think.

    http://emaildebtforgiveness.me/

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