For many years now I’ve been a proud part of the “Meet the Pros” team in a seasonal series of organization magazines from Better Homes & Gardens. The process usually starts with a longer interview session and wraps up with several follow up questions by email or phone.
During our most recent round, I received this multi-part follow-up question related to how to respond to email:
For one of the illustrations, we would like to show a five-day calendar with periods of time scheduled for responding to emails.
How much time do you recommend people block off for email work?
Do you recommend scheduling this every day?
Are there any times of the day to avoid?
Or any times of the day that you especially recommend for responding to email?
This was my response – via email – about how to respond to email:
“You know my favorite standard initial short answer is, ‘It depends!’
How long it should take to respond by email
If we’re talking about work email, company policy should dictate expectations for email responses. If there’s no policy, the industry or job responsibility would dictate the email schedule. For instance, if someone works in customer service or tech support, their job is to respond immediately to email, so they should check multiple times each hour. A public relations representative for a major company is pretty much on call around the clock. An associate at a law office is at the beck and call of the partners. The challenge is that these same people who are expected to respond to email right away are also given tasks to complete. Often times the deadlines they’re given do not take into account how responsive they’re expected to be to email, so they get completely overwhelmed. But I digress. How long should it take you to respond to email? Consult your company policy. Consult your department policy. Consult your industry standards. These will tell you how often you should check.
In jobs or professions where there is no written policy or standard – and where there is rarely a true emergency – email courtesy is to respond by the next business day.
If we’re talking about personal email, once per day outside of work hours should cover it.
Generalized email checking schedule
An ideal email schedule is to check daily near the beginning of the workday (after you’ve already identified your top priorities for the day), at mid-day, and again before the end of the day. As for the amount of time, if you can keep it to 30 minutes or less per check-in, that would be great. (When clients follow my email prevention advice, they can usually keep it to that timeframe.) However, if there is a written policy like those I previously referred to, that is what should be followed. Ideally, you’d have a set schedule for checking email, but since schedules can change each day because of meetings and appointments, having a general plan for how often to check and how long to spend each time will help you to still have time for getting work done instead of spending all day on email.
Days and times to possibly avoid email responses
Monday mornings usually have the largest load of emails to sort through because over the weekend people either thought of something or were catching up on work, and the end result lands in your inbox. So, if you email a response early on Monday morning to someone in the same boat as you, your email might get lost in the shuffle. If you must email on a Monday morning, make sure your subject line stands out.
Friday afternoons are also not ideal for a heavy round of responding to emails because chances are you’ll be in a hurry to crank those out so you can get out of there and start your weekend. This is when mistakes tend to happen. On the other end of your email, your recipient might also be in a mad dash to get the heck out of there, raising the probability of mistakes happening on their end. If you must send email on a Friday afternoon, do so carefully and set the expectation that you don’t expect a response until Monday morning.
The best days and times to respond to email
It’s not so much the time of day to respond that matters; it’s the expectations you set in the email for when deliverables are needed or when you’re available by email for the next response. There’s no law that says you must give a complete answer immediately. You can simply acknowledge you’ve received the email and let them know when you’ll get back to them with your researched answer. Additionally, the days and times you respond won’t make a difference if your subject line doesn’t give the recipient a hint about what the email will request of the recipient (a question? an action? an important announcement?), related to which subject, and by what deadline.”
There are so many caveats when it comes to email. For recommendations on what to do in various situations or for my email prevention recommendations or my “setting expectations” wording, be sure to check out chapters 14-16 in The Inefficiency Assassin: Time Management Tactics for Working Smarter, Not Longer.