You open your email first thing in the morning and there are 30 unread messages. Or, you finally tackled your inbox and right before you’re about to sign off one more email comes in. Or, how about this scenario: You’re struggling to prioritize between your other tasks and several starred messages.
The first question that pops into your head in any of these situations is, Should I open this?
Easy enough to decide, right?
But then, the second thought you have is, Do I need to respond to this now?
It’s a tough one, and quite honestly, you’re the only person who knows the answer. So while I’m probably not qualified to tell you exactly when you should get back to someone, I can help you narrow down your options.
They Say So
Pretty straightforward, but if someone takes the time to say, “Please get back to me today” or “I’d love to know your thoughts by this afternoon” or “Let me know what you think before our 3 PM meeting” or “I need this ASAP,” they mean it.
This also applies to any deadline someone gives you—meaning if they set a date for your response, you should get it to them by then (or, if you’re feeling over-productive, before).
It’s From Someone Really Important
If you work with demanding clients or high-profile execs, and you know that a delayed reaction will hurt your reputation (or your company’s), responding that day is always the right call.
It’s About an Urgent Matter
Issues pop up, deadlines get pushed, bosses need things at the last minute—if it seems urgent or a high priority, or it affects something you’re currently working on, it’s probably worth your immediate attention.
The Timing Isn’t Right
It’s 5 PM, and someone just got back to you. Sure, you can respond right then and there, but chances are they’re about to leave the office for the day—and it’ll get lost in the sea of messages they get tomorrow.
If you know that the person won’t respond today, it’s OK to push it back.
You Need Time to Mull it Over
Someone asked you a tough question, or they want something you need to check with your boss on, or their words catch you off guard or stir some emotions. Give yourself the extra day to think it over, calm down, and craft your response—you’ll feel better knowing you sent the professional response, even if it required more time.
It Requires More Than Just a Response
Maybe a response is not just needed from you, but requires multiple people’s input. Or, you have to send them a completed spreadsheet or presentation draft. It’s always better to take more time to gather your materials and cover all your bases than send a half-baked response to a full-baked request.
It’ll Make You Look Good
Muse writer Sara McCord outlines two times you’ll make a better impression if you wait to respond to an email. The first is when someone asks for new ideas—as long as it’s not urgent, they’re asking you to be thoughtful, so holding off gives the impression you’re actually trying to come up with some great stuff.
The second is if someone writes you a lengthy message—it’ll look rude if you just send a quick one-sentence email back, so give yourself some leeway to come up with an equally thorough answer.
You’re Not Available (and They Know That)
Lastly, if you’re on vacation, or traveling, or out sick, or indisposed for whatever reason—and you communicate this in some way (via an OOO message or inter-office word-of-mouth)—the person isn’t expecting an immediate response.
Crafting that ideal response is hard enough, so use this cheat sheet to figure out the right time to send it off, and you’re sure to maintain stellar relationships.
With all this said, you might feel bad not responding right away. In that case, take career expert Sara McCord’s advice and shoot back this response:
Thanks for letting me know. I have to [check with my boss/run this by a colleague/finish up another commitment] and will be in touch in approximately [time frame].
This way, everyone knows you got the message and it’s on your radar.
Photo of person on laptop courtesy of Thomas Barwick/Getty Images.
Previously an editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She’s written almost 500 articles for The Muse on anything from productivity tips to cover letters to bad bosses to cool career changers, many of which have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer and reader, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author