I recently kicked a really bad email habit. We’re talking about a longstanding, drove my husband crazy, thought I’d never break it kind of habit.
And because we’re rarely alone in our bad habits, I thought I’d share my success story, in case you too suffer from my former crippling email habit.
My bad habit? Taking absolutely forever to respond to emails. And it wasn’t just the taking forever to respond part that was problematic. It was the entire process that led up to that.
Here’s how it typically happened. I’d get an email from someone, and I’d think, “Oh cool, I’ve got a helpful response to this. But I want to take my time. I want to be thorough. And since I don’t have enough time to respond right now, I’ll wait until I have more time.” Then I’d set the email aside, fully intending to go back to it when I had adequate time.
But here’s the problem. I never had the so-called “adequate time” I wanted. Because let’s be honest, I rarely have 20 free minutes to sit down and leisurely respond to an email. So the email would sit there, waiting for me and my adequate chunk of time.
Then, a week and a half later, I’d realize I never responded to that email. I’d quickly panic, glance at the five additional emails that had come in since them, and become totally overwhelmed.
So I’d sit down and binge email, spending time I didn’t have crafting lengthy emails. Hoping to make up for my bad email habit, I’d start each email with a profuse apology. Then I’d curse my bad email habit, swearing to get my act together, only to repeat the process all over again later in the week.
My bad email habit was exhausting. And out of control. So I finally got serious about breaking it, using a few basic rules.
- If it takes less than two minutes, respond when you read it. This is a play on the classic “two minute rule.” If a response will only take two minutes, I do it right then. Read it, respond, and get it off your plate. (PS: I should note that I’m not a fan of constantly keeping your email open. This is multitasking at its worst, and y’all know what science says about that.) So if my email is open, that means I’m available to respond.
- Keep it brief. I used to think that every email I sent had to sound like a beautifully crafted poem. Now I keep it short and sweet, providing whatever information is needed but not a ton of extra.
- Write it, read it once, then send it. I’m a habitual proofreader of emails. It’s a well intentioned attempt to avoid mistakes, but it can get a little out of hand. So now I have a rule. Write the email, proofread it once, and then send it. No extra lingering to make it “just right.” (Sidenote: I make occasional exceptions if I’m sending out a pitch or collaboration email.)
- Get it done within 24 hours. I hate heading home for the day knowing I’ve got a pile of stuff waiting for me when I get into the office the next morning. So I try really hard to get emails done before I head home each day. If I’m going to leave emails unanswered, I look ahead to the next day and pencil in a specific time when I can respond.
- Remember, done is better than perfect. I’ve talked about this motto before. (See that post here.) This idea doesn’t come naturally to me, so I have to repeat this phrase often, particularly with email. An email sent in timely fashion with the possibility of a small typo is better than a beautifully crafted email sent two weeks late.
These five tips, used in combination with one another, have finally helped me kick my bad email habit. I still slip up every now and then, but I’d say I went from a D+ to an A-, which is a pretty sweet improvement in my book.
Does anyone else struggle with responding to emails in a timely manner? Do you have a bad email habit that you can’t seem to break?
PS: Want more tips for productivity? Click here.