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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Email Strategy

Email Is For Setting Expectations

Responding and answering an email are two different things. By replying to all requests to set the expectations of the sender, you'll end up feeling less overwhelmed.


Unread—or read but not replied to—email takes a toll on your happiness and productivity at work. It’s hard to stay focused on your important long-term goals as the emails pile up, and you know in the back of your mind that you’ll have to get to them “one of these days.”

This is particularly true if you work in an environment where there is an expectation that you will reply to email in a timely manner while still getting creative projects done.

On the surface, it seems like you have a no-win choice to make. You can either spend the entire day responding to other people’s priorities and getting none of your own completed, or you can get your own projects done and make others frustrated because they haven’t heard from you.

If you often fall into the latter category, a natural temptation is to further avoid communication when people get annoyed at you and work even harder. However, this tends to exacerbate the situation. When you don’t speak up about what’s reasonable or not reasonable and your colleagues don’t know what’s happening or not happening, they feel disrespected and ignored and you end up feeling overwhelmed.

When you don’t speak up, your colleagues don’t know what’s happening. They feel disrespected and you end up feeling overwhelmed.

Fortunately, there’s a third alternative that can reduce stress and increase understanding: Send a prompt initial response that still gives you control over the priorities for your day and sets expectations for your workload in general.

If you find yourself in the situation where your inbox messages and stress levels are constantly on the rise, you can use these email scripts to reply back and stake a claim over your time by setting expectations from the jump. In many cases, complex projects are a chain reaction of tasks. Most colleagues would much rather get realistic assessments of deliverable times then be ignored or receive stuff late. Save these responses as draft emails or text expanders so that you can access them quickly and then edit as necessary for a more personal touch.

When you need more time to write a thorough response:

Thank you for your note. I’ll be in touch with a full response soon.

When you need more time to make a decision: 

Thank you for your email. I’ll need to think through your proposal and get back to you with a decision. 

When you feel badly that you’re sending a delayed response:

I know it’s been a while since you sent this note, but I wanted to follow up with [my thoughts, a reply, the information you need].

When there are multiple steps required to complete a task:

I wanted to acknowledge that I’ve received your request. I have reached out to [Name] about [____] and also done [____]. I will follow up [date*] with an update.

*Make sure to put a reminder in your calendar so you follow through on your promise.

When you’re working on something but haven’t completed it yet: 

Thank you for your follow up. I’ve done [____] and am planning on doing [____]. Please let me know if you need any further details on the status.

When you don’t know if you can take on a new project:

I wanted to acknowledge I’ve received your request. I need to check on my other commitments and get back to you about whether I have the capacity to take this on right now. 

OR

Thank you for your message. It sounds like you have a great idea, but I’ll need to talk this through with my team to see if we have the capacity to add this to our project list right now.

When your boss asks you to do an additional project without providing additional resources:

Thank you for sending on this information. It seems like a great new initiative. However, if I do [____], then [____] will be delayed. Are you comfortable with that prioritization or would you like me to focus my efforts in a different manner?

When you need to ask for a deadline extension:

Hello [Name],

I wanted to keep you informed on the status of [____] project. Due to [____], I will need to get it to you [a few days later than we initially agreed OR by ____] Thank you for your understanding. Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

When someone sends you feedback you disagree with who you don’t have a personal or professional relationship with:

Consider deleting the email without a reply.

OR

Thank you for your feedback.

When someone sends you feedback you disagree with who you have a personal or professional relationship with:

Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate it and will consider it.

When someone wants to meet with you sooner than you have time to meet:

I’m booked for this week. But, I am currently available [date and time] to meet with you. Will that work for you?

When you don’t feel comfortable responding through email:

Thank you for your email. I would be happy to discuss this with you. Are you free for a phone call in the next few days? I am currently available [dates and times].

Do any of these work for you? If so, please name your preferred day, time, and phone number. If not, please suggest a few other days and times. 

Over to You:

What email responses help you set expectations?

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at http://www.RealLifeE.com.

Comments (1)
  • http://williamgallagher.com/blog/2014/04/29/dear-insert-name-here-your-email-is-very-important-to-us/ Dear [INSERT NAME HERE] your email is very important to us | William Gallagher and The Blank Screen

    […] The always excellent 99U site takes the opposite view and says stock, can, cookie is the way to go. See what you think – and if you agree with 99U, you’ll find such recommended stock cans in the article. […]

  • Sarah Peterson

    Great reference list! Thank you!

    • http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com/ Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      You’re welcome Sarah! Glad you found it helpful!

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/daily-clippings/p/4020478923/2014/04/29/email-is-for-setting-expectations Email Is For Setting Expectations | Daily Clipp...

    […] Responding and answering an email are two different things. By replying to all requests to set the expectations of the sender, you'll end up feeling less overwhelmed.  […]

  • http://www.maartenjanssen.nl/ Maarten Janssen

    Are you not postponing the problem in this way? Is it not that we should re-use email in a different way?

    Like this Medium article: https://medium.com/p/1bccaf2b55b7 or this Behance idea https://www.behance.net/gallery/8187353/STAMP-turn-email-into-todo- (an ‘old’ idea of myself)

    • http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com/ Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      I think my article is actually in agreement with these articles that you want short responses and agreements on action.

      I’m taking this one step further by advocating that you offer a quick response as the first next action that then gives you time for the larger response that you may or may not be able to complete in a prompt manner.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://www.scoop.it/t/life-work/p/4020497546/2014/04/30/email-is-for-setting-expectations Email Is For Setting Expectations | Life @ Work...

    […] Unread—or read but not replied to—email takes a toll on your happiness and productivity at work.  […]

  • Oliver McPhee

    An interesting reference Elizabeth – thanks:-)

    It aligns with what Stephen Covey says in his ‘first things first’ book – http://www.whymaps.com/home.aspx?kgid=23978

    • Hermione Smy

      Wow – that is cool! Like a logical brain-storm. Thanks for the link.

    • http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com/ Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Yes! Thanks for your insight!

      This is a way to make sure you stay in control without making other people feel ignored.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://www.nixonvs.com/ Nixon Virtual Strategies

    Hey, Elizabeth. I first want to thank you for this article. It’s so timely. For some time now I’ve been rethinking and plotting how to use email more efficiently AND educate my clients to collaborate with me more effectively. This is especially crucial for me as I am a Virtual Assistant so I do almost all my work online. I don’t have the luxury of having someone come down the hall to my office to ask me a quick question or chat over coffee.

    Not to take away from this article because we certainly do need to start using email smarter but I think we often overlook applications that are inexpensive (or often free) that could make communicating and collaborating so much simpler.

    As an example, I use Trello to work with a client/team in London (I’m in the US). If there’s a task that we need to discuss or a new project we need to work on, it makes much more sense for them to send an email directly to Trello so that it immediately gets posted to a board. I can be working, switch over and check what’s due and when without missing a beat; without having to say, “Got it.” More project management or online collaboration applications have such a feature but few of us exploit it for its value. If I’m already using the application anyway, it certainly saves me from having to open the email, read it, respond to it and then add it myself.

    I think the trick here is getting people we work with on board even when we’re working more efficiently ourselves. While most of my clients are technically sophisticated and, like me, enjoy trying out something new, there will always be those who just don’t get it and will forget the email address, or use it incorrectly, causing me more work altogether and missed messages.

    And as far as meetings, I completely allow people to self-schedule time with me which has virtually eliminated the back and forth of setting up times and dates. From my site there’s a calendar that syncs with my Google Calendar and Outlook. I just leave a buffer so no one can make a last minute appointment and trip me up and we’re good. That I’ve been doing for years and even my friends use it now when they want to be sure I have time to speak uninterrupted.

    We’ve got more tools available than ever before to make our lives easier. I’ve always said computers were never intended to make our lives more difficult. We’ve got the resources and tools – we should be using them to make our business *and* personal lives run more smoothly.

    I’m curious to know if others have streamlined their email communications using online collaboration tools. Anyone?

    Cordially,
    Patricia Nixon
    Nixon Virtual Strategies
    http://www.nixonvs.com

    The Power of Delegation
    recognized by Forbes

    • http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com/ Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Very good points! Thank you for sharing your insights on helpful tools and scheduling. Much appreciated.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • http://thecannabisstraindirectory.com/blog/lifehacker/use-email-to-set-expectations-now-instead-of-replying-later/ Use Email to Set Expectations Now, Instead of Replying Later | The Cannabis Strain Directory Blog

    […] Email Is For Setting Expectations | 99u […]

  • http://tabletreviewss.com/carpenter/2014/05/05/use-email-to-set-expectations-now-instead-of-replying-later/ Use Email to Set Expectations Now, Instead of Replying Later | Carpenter

    […] Email Is For Setting Expectations | 99u […]

  • jgrosser

    “Thank you for sending on this information. It seems like a great new
    initiative. However, if I do [____], then [____] will be delayed. Are
    you comfortable with that prioritization or would you like me to focus
    my efforts in a different manner?”

    Wow, what a fantasy world you live in! My clients and superiors all want their work done perfectly and immediately. They don’t care about other priorities or needs. If their work isn’t done when they want it, they will quickly switch their work to my competitors. This leaves me in a constant state of anxiety and dread.

    If I sent the email above to my direct supervisor, he would respond: “Sorry, I need you to do both. Cheers.” By which, he would mean: do both projects now!

    • http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com/ Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      It’s true that different industries/companies can have varying levels of expectations so you may want to consider switching to a different environment that will give you more margin to set boundaries.

      However, I can assure you that I don’t live in a fantasy world. On a daily basis, I coach clients around planet Earth on using these techniques and they work.

      Doing two things at once is impossible. So if your direct supervisor doesn’t give you feedback on priorities, he’s lost out on his opportunity to give you input and you simply will make the choice on priorities yourself.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      • DinaClare

        I used to work in an environment like this. After a few years of pulling my hair out and feeling overwhelmed, which had a terrible effect on my mental health, I left the industry entirely. Couldn’t be happier about my decision!

  • http://www.itclips.net/2014/05/05/use-email-to-set-expectations-now-instead-of-replying-later/ Use Email to Set Expectations Now, Instead of Replying Later - IT Clips

    […] Email Is For Setting Expectations | 99u […]

  • http://thetechshowdown.com/use-email-to-set-expectations-now-instead-of-replying-later/ Use Email to Set Expectations Now, Instead of Replying Later | The Tech Showdown!

    […] Email Is For Setting Expectations | 99u […]

  • http://radudee2.croitoru.com/11333/ Use Email to Set Expectations Now, Instead of Replying Later – R2D2's blog

    […] Email Is For Setting Expectations | 99u […]

  • http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2014/05/use-email-to-set-expectations-now-instead-of-replying-later/ Use Email To Set Expectations Now, Instead Of Replying Later | Lifehacker Australia

    […] Email Is For Setting Expectations [99u] […]

  • Seana Turner

    Excellent suggestions. Sometimes just having the “script” makes it easier to respond.

  • Joe

    Tip: To save time, set up the replies as outlook signatures.

    • Jeanette

      This is the best advice! Thanks, I’ve just done that and look forward to using them instead of rewriting the same email over and over again!

  • DEREK HEISLER

    Elizabeth, thanks for the great article.

    I have a suggestion for non-outlook, specifically google apps users(gmail); add the Labs add-in “canned responses”. It works great for exactly this. I have tons of canned responses I use to reduce time in my email.

  • http://sites.psu.edu/brandonhunt/2014/05/15/email-is-for-setting-expectations-99u/ Email Is For Setting Expectations – 99U | Brandon Hunt, PhD, LPC, NCC

    […] via Email Is For Setting Expectations – 99U. […]

  • http://www.charlottemiller.me/ Charlotte Miller

    I have found this one of the most helpful pieces of reading this year so far for email. I struggle with email and managing multiple internal and client pieces. So thank you so much. Will definitely have these in a word doc or one big signature that I can quickly edit. Thank you

  • http://dexterousdiva.co.uk/2014/05/18/links-love-09-05-2014/ Links of Love 18.05.2014 - The Dexterous Diva

    […] let email take a toll on your happiness or stress you out, get some email strategy in your […]

  • http://www.cimettadesign.com/blog/how-to-manage-email-for-business/ How to Manage Email for Business « Cimetta Design News Cimetta Design News

    […] industry specific, but some of them can be basic, CYA, responses. Elizabeth Grace Saunders has a great article over at 99u.com has a list of fantastic responses that can be saved as draft emails so that you […]

  • http://iampariah.com/finds/today-in-design-top-articles-roundup-13-june-2014.php Today in Design - Top Articles RoundUp 13 June 2014 | Pariah Burke

    […] Email Is For Setting Expectations […]

  • http://blog.shareflow.net/manage-email-time/ How to manage email like a pro – @ShareflowHQ Blog

    […] Time coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders, writing for 99U, says that email is for setting expectations. […]

  • http://www.pearltrees.com/ptkermet/professional-necessities/id12799595/item118219318 Professional Necessities | Pearltrees

    […] Email Is For Setting Expectations. Unread—or read but not replied to—email takes a toll on your happiness and productivity at work. […]

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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
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Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco