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Should You Respond To Every Email?

So much communication, so little time. The result: Email guilt. But should we really feel bad about not responding to every email?

Inbox zero is no longer a goal, it’s a mirage. Instead, we have email guilt – otherwise known as the condition of having so much email you couldn’t possibly respond to it all, but you still feel like you should. Or should you? That’s the question we are posing here today: “Should you respond to every email?”

Seth Godin /// Author, Blogger, Marketing Guru

“No, you shouldn’t. But many people do, because there doesn’t seem to be a great alternative. It’s asymmetrical, and productivity loses to politeness.”

Scott Belsky /// CEO, Behance

“No, but I still try. I don’t respond to emails with “FYI” in the subject line, unless I have something valuable to add. But the majority of other emails from people – quick questions, unsolicited inquiries, or articles from friends – deserve a response. I try to be quick, replying with 3-5 words when possible. My thinking: email may drive us crazy, but it is still a form of communication with people, and communication helps build relationships.”

Simon Sinek /// Leadership Expert & Author, “Start With Why”

“Emails are like rabbits, they reproduce at an exorbitant rate. The more you send, the more you get. So many people complain about all the emails they get, my question is, how many emails do you send?Sending one email to 5 people could produce 5 emails back. Overwhelmed by all the emails I would get, I decided to stop sending as many. Now, when I have something to ask or tell someone, I pick up the phone and call them. Not only has it significantly reduced the number of emails I get, but it actually saves me time also. A five minute call replaces the time it takes to read and reply to the original email and read and reply to their reply… or replies. And I no longer spend 20+ minutes crafting the perfect email – no need to.

The number of emails I get has dropped so dramatically, in fact, that I no longer feel I need to sleep next to my phone or check my emails when I wake up in the morning – something I used to do even before I brushed my teeth or showered. We don’t need to figure out a strategy on how to deal with all our emails if we are able to significantly reduce the number that come in in the first place… and the only way to do that is to start using the phone again.”

What Do You Think?

What’s your take? Should you respond to every email?

Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (67)
  • Steve Cornell

    Mostly (unless easy to quickly answer or more urgent) I flag them according to importance and set aside a time each week to respond. The more troubling part is the expectations others might have about getting immediate responses. 

  • Tim Wright

    E-mail is not an immediate response medium (anymore). With all the way we can get a hold of someone, e-mail is by far the slowest response time for digital communications.

    I started following the Merlin Mann method for e-mail about a year ago. I check it once I get in in the morning to work, close it; check again after lunch, close it; and check once more before I leave.

    It helps me really weed out the e-mails I don’t need to reply to (if I’m cc’d or something) and also allows me to keep a level of sanity in only having to deal with e-mail 3 times a day.

  • Steve Crutchfield

    If it’s a direct question to me…that only i can answer…some type of timely response is needed. There is no greater “slap in the face” than to belittle someone’s attempt to gather information by waiting as long as possible to respond or ignoring them all together.

  • Dan Peck

    No have a bit of DigitalSilence!

  • Blake Law

    If only there was a way to make emailing more like old-fashioned letter writing… What if ISPs transitioned into charging small fees per email sent? It would eliminate spam, and make everyone think a little more carefully before hitting “send”.

  • karin

    Definitely prefer e-mail any day to phone tag or leaving a message on the answering machine! An e-mail also documents my communication and the person can respond at their convenience. Don’t answer FYI, cc or bcc, but answer all the others – briefly!

  • kyleshew

    I often feel obligated to respond to every email. There is something very satisfying about seeing an inbox full of “replied” check marks.  

    I love Simon’s point above about crafting 20+ minute perfect responses. This is such a time and energy sucker. Why is it that so many of us do it? The days are long gone when a full letter style response is expected, but I still feel like I am breaking some sort of rule when I send a 2 word response…I like Blake Law’s suggestion – start charging a small fee per email sent and everyone would think a little more carefully before hitting send. 

  • Bethany Betzler

    I totally agree with Simon Sinek’s perspective on using the phone more and emails less. In fact, on NYE 2010, as I sat trying to respond to about 200 emails before getting ready to go out for the night, I decided that 2011 would be the year of the phone for me. The important thing is to make sure and communicate to your network that if they really need to reach you they should know to pick up the phone and call.

  • jkglei

    An email tax? Interesting idea!

  • Pherring05

    Most emails written to me by real people do get responses. Mailing lists on the other hand never get responded to and most of those get read. If I find I am not reading a newsletter consistently I unsubscribe.

  • Stephen Shedletzky

    Simon – your comments are genius. Per usual. Your analogy of the rabbit is great. Next time I open up a new ‘Compose Email’, I’ll look for their phone number first 😉

  • Andy Bailey

    +1 for email tax. It would solve all world debt!

  • Arvell Craig

    i think the problem is using email for important communication.. I’m trying to reduce ‘important’ email by using project systems, IM, feedreaders, and twitter/facebook. All these alternative methods I’m suggesting don’t mandate a response nor plague our mental resources.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Maybe the real question is: ‘Should you expect a response to every email you send?’

  • Linda DeLuca, Coach

    Not all emails require a reply. If you ‘process’ the no reply required emails out of your inbox, is it really all that bad? 
    Phone vs. email: Choosing the type of communication depends upon the person I’m communicating with. I know many who are visual and respond better (and understand better) the written word. But there are times when an immediate response is best (phone). The issue I have is many of my clients / connections are global and I could be calling them at 3am!
    Seems there are many possible ways to handle this! I love all of the different perspectives in the comments!

  • Daniel Ruyter

    Tough subject for sure. I love it! I use rules and auto-responders when appropriate. Auto-responders can be a bit sterile so I only send them out when certain words are in the subject (such as an inquiry from the Contact Me page on my site). They usually don’t expect an immediate response.

    I also like the idea Tim Ferriss introduced (to me, anyway) in his book The 4-Hour Workweek: use a personal assistant contractor to reply to emails for you. Outsource your Email inbox:

  • Isaac Cady

    I like the idea of picking up the phone and making a call (or being called), but in the Internet age, many others in my generation (I’m 22) are petrified of phone conversations with someone they don’t know. I’ve had many conversations with many of my friends about it and most of them fear that they will be awkward and embarrass themselves or are just irrationally scared. I can’t deny some guilt, but, for the illustration business, phone calls are much quicker than email. There’s no waiting or playing Q&A tag; if there are any questions/comments, they are immediately adressed and I can move on with the commission.

  • K-eM

    I actually find that not only does it save time to talk to someone directly (rather than send an email), it is also more productive and creative. I get a lot more communicated in less time and we can share ideas, sort them, and act on them more spontaneously and efficiently in a verbal conversation than is possible in an email conversation. In 5 minutes we can accomplish something that could take all day in email.

  • Molly Blain

    I endeavour to respond to all emails. I need written confirmation on dissuasions and agreements so my email is my port of call. I send a lot of emails internally as this is part of my role, but I also pick up the phone and later send a follow up email for confirmation.
    It all helps my memory also, it’s shocking and I always refer back to my emails for info “see all emails, cntrl+f”

  • Carolyn Stephens

    When I send an email, I appreciate a response even if it’s just “Got it” or “Thanks” or “I’ll be there.” So I try to return the favor and let senders know I received and read their messages. 

  • KAlex

    Yes and No. Sometimes an email communication warrants a phone call or a trip to see someone in person. I think the response can be variable depending on the need or how quickly you need to accomplish a task. I strive for more personal interactions which are more productive. 

  • Jörg Oyen

    Apple´s mail rule – move unread mail after five weeks to trash will make the decision «respond or not» much easier

  • Jörg Oyen

    Apple´s mail rule – delete unread mails after five weeks, will make the decision «respond or not» much easier. #gtd

  • Jay Kaushal

    Well most of the time guys like me in web design business has to respond for all mails from clients. Some are current jobs and some potential enqiries. But a line has to be drawn somewhere as reading and sending mails become a time con using thing. I too try to answer some mails by talking with the client instead on the phone as it takes less time to clear matters this way. I have made a habit of marking my mails with labels like Do, Draft proposal, TYT ( take your time) so I can know which one require immediate attention and which can be replied at leisure 🙂

  • jkglei

    Agreed. Email certainly isn’t the best modality for handling any number of situations. More on that:

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