Email management: I'll get back to you


Many of my clients want help organizing their email.  Some of them even aspire to "inbox zero", the practice of keeping the number of messages in one's inbox at - you guessed it - zero. On the surface, it seems like a simple problem that could be resolved by setting up some folders and unsubscribing from email lists that are no longer relevant.  But really, where you put stuff is only a small part of the issue.

The real problem with email management – or lack thereof – is perceived responsiveness. Someone sends you an email asking you to do something.  You procrastinate, but you know the request is in your email, so you don’t worry too much about it.  You’ll get to it “soon”. But the requests keep coming in, and next thing you know, your inbox is a mishmash of to-dos, information, and guilt.  Hours turn into days, which turn into weeks, and next thing you know, you’ve been labeled as a person who doesn’t respond to email.  Or worse, is incompetent or doesn’t care. 

Email was never meant to be a task management tool.  It’s a communication tool.  So let’s separate the tasks from the talk.

There are a couple of reasons why you might not respond to an email right away:

  • You have to do something first
  • You have to decide something first
  • You have to think about how you want to respond 

All are valid.  But no matter what the reason, you can save your credibility with five little words:  “I’ll get back to you.”  Send a quick reply right away letting the person know you got the message, so they don’t have to wonder if it – or you – got lost in cyberspace.  This gives you time to do the thing, make the decision, or compose your response. 

Of course, you do have to actually get back to the person eventually. How will you remember to follow up?  Put it in your task management system.  If a decision has to be made, “decide what to do about ____” is the appropriate to-do list item.   Then when you’ve made the decision, or completed the task, send the full response.  

This two-part approach to answering emails will go a long way towards building – or saving - your reputation as someone who can be counted on.  No matter how many messages you have in your inbox.