Here’s a question for you (though perhaps not one you want to hear 😉 ): How many emails have you got sitting in your inbox waiting for a reply at the moment? And if you take a closer look: Why haven’t you replied yet?

If I think about my own inbox, there are two very different categories of mails that often take me longer to answer. In the first category are the ones where I already know that the reply is going to be difficult and time-consuming. I need to gather my thoughts, collect information or reach a decision. Or perhaps I have to tell the other person something they won’t want to hear and haven’t yet decided how best to word my message. There are good reasons for not answering mails in this category immediately.

But now we come to the mails in the second category – and they are a different kettle of fish altogether. These are the ones which actually made my day. The ones where I was really pleased to hear from someone and loved reading their mail. And yet I still put off replying.

This second category is the one I’m interested in in this post.


Why do we put off answering mails that have made us happy?

I think the short answer is: perfectionism. I don’t know about you, but when I’m especially pleased to receive a mail – for example, from an old friend I haven’t heard from for ages or a customer telling me how much the training has helped her – I want to do that mail justice. I want to show that I appreciate them getting in touch and the effort they’ve put into writing. It doesn’t seem right to just fire off a quick reply. I want to get the contents, wording and tone exactly right – everything should be perfect.

Perfection is a tall order. An even taller one if you’re not writing in your native language. What should be an enjoyable task – getting in touch with someone who obviously values you and/or your work – becomes a daunting one when you’re striving for perfection.


What happens if you don’t reply promptly?

Firstly, you’re making life difficult for yourself. The initial pleasure you felt when you received the mail can be a powerful incentive to write an answer. The energy from the original mail carries you along and makes everything easier. But it fades as the days go by and writing an answer becomes just another nagging task on your to-do list. Once you’ve put off replying for a couple of days, it can be very difficult to convince yourself that you have to do it today – there’s no harm in waiting another day, is there?

Secondly, the longer you wait, the greater the risk of damaging the relationship. The sender may feel disappointed, hurt or annoyed if they don’t hear back from you reasonably soon. They may even worry that they’ve done something wrong. So, ironically, in your attempts to get everything exactly right, you can end up doing everything wrong.


So what can you do? 

Break it down into manageable chunks

Remember Beppo the street sweeper in Michael Ende’s book Momo? Instead of seeing the whole task ahead of you and being discouraged, it’s better to take things one step at a time.

In this case that means beginning to draft a reply to the mail as soon as you receive it. Even if you only have 10 minutes. Forget about perfectly formed sentences, just write down your immediate reaction to the mail – what you’d say to the sender if they were standing in front of you. Save this draft and the next time you have 10 – 15 minutes to spare, start to go through the mail you received step by step, answering questions or commenting on what the sender has written, for example. Don’t worry if you don’t finish, just make a point to come back to your draft as soon as possible, writing a little more, checking for mistakes and generally tidying your mail up. You should soon have a presentable email. Resist the temptation to leave it in your draft folder to have another look at the next day. Send it out.

This approach stops you waiting for the perfect moment to answer – that moment when you know exactly what you would like to write (in English) and you have plenty of time to do so. That’s a moment that may never come. But if you make a start, however small, you may be surprised how easily the words flow.


Send a quick note in the meantime

If you know there’ll be no opportunity to answer properly within the next couple of days, you can still get back to the sender promptly. Why not send a couple of lines promising to reply soon?

It was lovely to hear from you again after all this time. I’ve got so much to tell you too. I’m tied up with … until the end of next week. But then I’ll definitely be in touch.

Your mail made my day. I’m really pleased to hear that you found the course so helpful. I’m rather busy at the moment, but I’ll get back to you with a proper reply by the end of the week.

In this way you take the pressure off for the moment, but still commit yourself to writing very soon.


Consider reaching for the phone

You could also think about ringing the sender. Either directly or, if you’re not sure whether that would be ok, you can write suggesting a call.

Thank you so much for your mail. It was great to hear from you again. Shall we arrange a call to catch up properly? I’m available Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon next week, for example.

This may seem challenging if you’re not really comfortable speaking English, but it has definite advantages. It’s timesaving – a 10- to 15-minute conversation where the ball goes back and forth between the two of you can replace an hour spent wording and rewording a mail. It’s immediate – you can both ask questions and get answers straightaway. (So, it’s not a case of receiving a reply to your reply which you then also have to reply to.) It often feels more personal and can help to create a closer relationship.

I hope these ideas help you to get into good habits. Let me know how you get along. 🙂


Posted on Feb 22, 2021 in improving relationships
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Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more