It’s Okay Not To Reply Immediately To An Email (If At All)

Having an important email hang over your head without a response is the stuff of anxiety-inducing sweat dreams. For some reason, we equate response time with success. If someone gets back immediately, they’ve truly got it together. If someone takes more than a day, it’s expected they offer a grovelling apology or excuse.

We place so much importance on email responses, it’s almost suffocating. How can we expect to get real work done when we need to reply to people within ten minutes of receiving a note? Answer: We can’t. So why do we feel the need to apologise when we fall behind?

Writer Melissa Febos posed the question to Catapult, “Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses?” In this case, writing can be replaced with any profession. Basically, do you want to be good at what you do, or be good at replying to emails?

Of course, you want to be good at what you do. So stop placing such importance on email.

Distinguish important from urgent

Dan Ariely is another person who feels plagued by the constant avalanche of emails. So as any dude in the 21st century would do, he created an app to fix this problem. The app, named Filtr, uses software to sort your emails into the level of urgency they require.


Ariely created Filtr after he asked people on his blog to review their last 40 emails and rank them according to how quickly they needed to respond. He found that over a third of them didn’t need to be seen at all. Yet studies have shown that even just getting a notification that an email has arrived interrupts your work flow. If we’re receiving at least one third of emails that we don’t need to, we’re getting interrupted for absolutely no reason.

“There’s a huge difference between important and urgent.”

Speaking to Bloomberg, Ariely explained, “With email, we treat everything as if we’re in a hurry. There’s a huge difference between important and urgent. This is no disrespect to my mother, but everything she writes me is important – nothing has yet been urgent.”

Be unreliable, I dare you

In her article, Febos talks about how she’s let herself stop caring about using a tool like email to seek approval. She’s vowed to “cultivate a persona of unreliability”.

Unreliability sounds like such a dirty word, one I physically flinch at. But in an age where we’re constantly available through mediums like email, Facebook, text, Facetime, Instagram, etc, etc, etc until we die, it’s frankly unreasonable to be expected to respond to everything.


Febos tells a story of a writer she admires who replied to her emails sporadically and particularly unprofessionally – like a body that contained nothing other than “i think that works let me check on smthing.” His delayed and typo-ridden responses never blemished her opinion of him. She still revered him as a fantastic writer and a good person. So why would we ever think that others would think poorly of us if we did the same?

She writes, “I made a conscious decision to model my own communication style on that writer’s. To sometimes just let things go. The goal cannot be to answer everything, even eventually. If you set high expectations, the only place to go is down, into disappointment. What if you become a big deal and start receiving an outrageous number of emails? Are you going to exclusively write emails? I am not a big deal at all, and if I responded to every single thing, I would get hardly any writing done.”

If you set very high expectations, the only place to go is down, into disappointment

Saying sorry ruins it for the rest of us

Another important point that Febos makes is to stop apologising if there is a delay. For starters, women apologise far too much as it is.

She says apologising for a late email is ruining it for everyone, and reinforces the idea that a swift response time is the only acceptable response time. She writes, “That writer never once apologised to me for his unreliable response rate and he need not have. A week seems like a perfectly reasonable length of time to take. Or longer. Regardless, stop apologising.”


Don’t do it, you guys. Seriously.

And stop going hard on yourself for being bad at a system of work that wasn’t even around 20 years ago. We’re still collectively adjusting. There’s a lot more on our plates than there ever has been before. In other words, don’t feel bad for leaving it “seen”.

h/t: Science Of Us