Are you leaving other people in limbo because you don’t respond to emails? This one is an easy fix.

Some years ago, I was the guest host on a Twitter chat and posed the following question:

“What do other people do that negatively impacts your productivity? How do you deal with it?”

One person answered, “Failure to respond to my communications. How hard is it to text back? I haven’t solved this problem yet.

And we still haven’t solved the “reply” problem…

Great things happen when good people communicate effectively. But when one party cannot, or will not, uphold his or her end, effectiveness suffers. Things take longer than necessary. Patience becomes short. The desire to work with the offender may even be compromised.

We often cannot move forward on a project without the input or approval of a particular person. It’s not that we have waited until the last minute to initiate communication. It’s not that we are expecting a reply instantly. Today turns into tomorrow. Tomorrow comes and goes. We begin to wonder if the other person even got the message.

As if we didn’t have enough to do already, we follow up with another email or a phone call, which invariably turns into leaving a voice mail. My experience has been that those who are bad with email are equally as bad with voice mail.

Here’s just one example…

One email I sent garnered this reply“…I am on my way to technology for a meeting at 8:30.  I will get back with you this afternoon or tomorrow morning, depending on when I return.”

Not bad. Only… “today” came and went, as did tomorrow, and the next day. When I sent a follow-up email the following week, here is the response I got:

I was at technology all day on Wednesday (my b’day by the way), Fall Festival Thursday, sick kids on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  Had meetings scheduled all day on Monday as well as trying to move things from xxx to xxx, and yesterday Mrs. xxx was at PLU session so I was involved in all IEP meetings, eligibility meetings, and PST meetings throughout the day.  Today, I am just getting to my desk after three back to back meetings since 7:45 a.m.    In other words, I haven’t had a chance to get back with you.  Whew!!!

“Whew,” indeed. Just reading that laundry list of excuses made me tired.

My first thought was, “If you knew you were going to be tied up with a Fall Festival on Thursday, why would you promise a response on that day in the first place?”

My next thought was, “With all of your busyness, could you not have taken 15 seconds to let me know you needed to reschedule?” 

Or, was time really the problem?

The more likely explanation is that once the email had disappeared from the first page, it was both out of sight and out of mind.

The solution is so simple

If you’re leaving people in limbo, let’s put a stop to it today.

Much of the email we get becomes a “to-do” for us. If the email is a to-do, we have two options:

  1. Do it now.
  2. Do it later.

If the choice is the first one, handle it and delete or archive the email. Respond to it, pick up the phone, write the report…whatever. Do it and be done with it.

If you are going to do it later, the email inbox is the wrong place for it. If it is a to-do, it goes on the to-do list. My tool of choice is Remember The Milk. It offers an easy way to send an email to the to-do list. You can specify a date on which you want to see the email. The entire body of that email will appear in the note section of the task.

If your choice is to “do it later” and “later” is going to be more than a couple of days, hit reply and acknowledge the email. Give some indication of when you plan to respond. It’s just not that hard.

  • I can understand if you are busy.
  • I’m OK that you might not be able to accomplish the task right away.
  • But I can’t understand it when you just don’t respond. You probably can’t either.

“Busy” isn’t the problem. “Time” isn’t the problem. Disorganization is the problem. Often, they never saw the email. It was one needle in a haystack of emails cluttering an inbox.

Or, the email found its way to a spam folder that is never checked. Spam filters aren’t perfect. I find good stuff winds up there regularly. Knowing that trend, I look at my spam folder weekly. (You should too.)

Or, they intended to reply but got busy with something else. (That’s why either responding immediately or putting it on the task list is so important.)

People aren’t mind readers

Or at least most of them aren’t. Nobody likes being left in limbo. If handling the email will take time, take 15 seconds to hit “reply” and let someone know. It costs you nothing. It gains you a reputation as being someone who can be counted on.

Email is about making decisions

Every email in the inbox represents a decision that has yet to be made. Those emails represent:

  • Events to go on the calendar.
  • To-dos to go on the task list.
  • Reference information to store in digital notes or digital documents.
  • Documentation to save in case it’s needed.
  • Something someone else should be handling.

Make a decision about what the email represents. Put it in the right place. For more on exactly how to do this, here is an article I wrote for MiddleWeb. I hope you find value in it.

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