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Does GTD, or any other agile/time-management method give an advice/best practice about when to reply e-mails?

I am talking about typical e-mails, which requires some work to be done (1 hour+).

It is better to

  • reply with "I know about your message, i'll get to it tomorrow, maybe later" (saying actually nothing)
  • or reply after many hours/days, when I get to it and reply "It's done"? (recipient need to wait longer, but get the answer which makes sense)
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8 Answers 8

I disagree with the other answers here because I don't think a good argument can be made for either of the two options given. The right thing to do in a particular situation depends on the context, and knowing what to do is part of what you get paid for.

There are lots of factors that will influence the right choice, but here are some examples:

  • Know who the email is from. There are some people who will panic if they send an email and don't hear something back right away. These people will follow up with a call, send another email the next morning, and/or seek you out in the hall--basically hound you via any available communication path until they have assurance you've accepted the action they were trying to dish out. You can bring this on yourself if you're not good with follow through or miss emails, but obviously some people are just paranoid and crazy.

    For the sake of your own sanity, I'd recommend a short note to these people. For them it's not content free; it's saving them a load of anxiety.

  • Know yourself and what others are going to assume about you. If you're normally an email and productivity ninja and get back to stuff quickly, people you work with regularly are going to calibrate accordingly and expect high performance. If you know that this week you're just swamped and things you'd normally address quickly are going to languish for a while it's probably worth a quick note to let them know things are not normal; that way if they can tolerate the delay they will know to expect things later than normal and if they can't you've let them know they need to push back on your priorities or get along without you.

  • Know how the other person handles email. Perhaps the person needs a response but not via email. I get lots of tasking from my boss via email, but often I'll let him know how things are coming at the end of a phone call on another topic or on the way to a meeting. The status is valuable but he gets a lot of email so another communication channel works bets.

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I'd suggest sending a message when there is something to say really. If you know something will not be handled for a few days then communicating that, "I'm sorry but I've got these other higher priority items to do first and so there will be a few days before I start on it," is useful information. At the same time, an auto reply of, "I got your message and will get back to you shortly," lacks the specifics to make it useful.

A suggestion for when to check e-mail that may take a few minutes to figure out a reply would be the following times:

  1. Start of business day - What happened while I was out of the office so that I am up to speed.
  2. Lunch break - This would be a sort of "Half time" to my work day and where I can see what has happened.
  3. End of business day - Prior to leaving, check to see what has been sent and file accordingly.

Links that may be useful:

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It's commonly accepted that response to an e-mail can take up to one work day; that means, if I send you an e-mail you would respond before the exact same time tomorrow. So, it's reasonable enough to only send an e-mail about delays if you suspect that you can't finish your work on the same day.

Doing it this way gives your recipient the idea that you are busy. If you would give a direct response the recipient might get suspicious and wonder why you are doing something else (work or not) first; so just don't make him wait by a response but let him wait by not sending a response.

If you can't do it in the same day, you obviously have a reason for that and can put that in the mail.

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Saying "I know about your message, i'll get to it tomorrow, maybe later" (saying actually nothing) just wastes their time. If these are people you work with and you are reliable about responding, this doesn't help them.

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2  
Agreed. Unless you have an expectation of time to reply. For example, I'm on a mailing list where we have an informal agreement that we will process requests within a work day. If that isn't happening, saying something is helpful. But then it isn't saying nothing. It is saying the request will take longer. Ideally "I'll reply on Thursday" rather than "when I feel like it" –  Jeanne Boyarsky Sep 23 '11 at 2:47

I this your question has as much to do with the expectations of the sender as it does anything... if they would expect a quick response, or have a perception that it is a small task requiring an immediate response then it might pay to communicate with the hour, with the answer or setting an expectation of when they might expect an answer.

Short and sweet, or with specific actions on their part to get additional answers you need. If it's a longer term project, you could acknowledge receipt later.

I never thought about it before, but you could actually sort or flag emails by when it's wise to respond.

And here's some other things I do a few things to help manage emails --

  1. Timeshift. I use boomerang for gmail to pre-write emails and then send them later... this could be work or personal (eg. birthday related)

  2. I specifically use a blackberry over an Android or iPhone so I can type easier on the go, so I write emails on the go during otherwise downtime, like travelling from A to B.

  3. Use #2 I write emails when I'm going for a timeout. So on my break sometimes I write emails OR I just take time away from the desk and stretch my feet while writing emails (I can type as fast on my blackberry as my keyboard -- fast on both).

  4. I use autotext (on the blackberry) and a text expander (phraseexpress) to speed up the quality and time it takes to reply.

  5. I write batch emails, in one 5-10min period I can reply to many (even if I don't send them all at once).

  6. You can use followupthen.com to follow up unanswered emails for you.

  7. You can use Toutapp for gmail to apply template responses.

  8. For high prority people you can set up a watch list and auto-reply with an out-of-office to set expectations of reply times.

As a final aside, I keep cc/bcc to a minimum as I hate being copied on needless communications. And don't forget to pick up the phone if it can cut out a needless game of email ping-pong. That said I much prefer email as I can manage this and the time and method of my response much better.

I hope that helps a little.

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I always try and reply promptly, and using the tools I explained above I can normally do quickly. It's nice to get a reputation for being responsive, although you need to balance accessibility and speed of response.. as this can be exploited as people know you are a 'rapid responder' so you well get more mail. Equally you don't want to get trapped in a endless loop of frivolous conversation because 'you're available'. –  Ryan Jan 17 '12 at 11:59
    
Something else which be interesting is the Xonbi plugin for Outlook if I recall has a way to show you the speed with which people respond to you. It would be interesting to see how fast others respond to you. –  Ryan Jan 17 '12 at 12:00

This website provides some good information on email protocol, including how to act if a full response to a query will take some time:

http://www.emailreplies.com/

Every organisation should develop a similar policy and apply it consistently. It's a good idea for people to develop a similar protocol (although it may be briefer) for personal emails and/or if they are self employed.

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The GTD training I've had was very pragmatic on this:

  • If doing the action and writing a response takes less than 2 minutes, DO IT.
  • It it takes more than 2 minutes, put it on your to-do list just as you would with any other task.

If you treat tasks that arrive by emails differently from other tasks, you are interrupting your normal workflow and it will slow you down, causing everything else to be delayed.

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In my opinion,

Saying to someone "I know about your message, i'll get to it tomorrow, maybe later" is not cool. People thinks like "Ok. He/She saw my e-mail, I care him/her but why he/she doesn't care me too much?" Is he/she busy or doesn't want to answer me? People are curious. And they think all people are bad until they realize they are good.

Respond Promptly

If you want to appear professional and courteous, make yourself available to your online correspondents. Even if your reply is, “Sorry, I’m too busy to help you now,” at least your correspondent won’t be waiting in vain for your reply.

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