When is the Best Time to Respond to Emails?

Here’s the thing.

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In theory, I believe that email isn’t work. In my view, email isn’t a creation-based process that results in shipping your next product out the door, or writing your next book, or recording your next album. Email isn’t as creatively taxing as getting a project done, and email doesn’t add up hour after hour, day after day, to a completed project.

And so, for those reasons, I agree with folks who say that you should never email first thing in the morning. Instead, with those first few hours of peak energy that most of us have upon waking, we should focus on our most difficult task of the day, and get that done. This is not a new idea.

It’s a theory proposed in Eat that Frog: 21 Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time and in many other books on productivity. I even touch on it in my own ebook about creating a morning routine, The Present Principle: Seven Steps to Life in the Now. (I’ll go further into depth in my upcoming book, Greater Expectations: Succeed (and Stay Sane) in an On-Demand, All-Access, Always-On Age.)

But telling you when not to email isn’t suggesting you when you should respond to emails.  So when should you respond to emails, if not in the first few hours of the morning when you first turn on your computer?

I believe there are a few key times when it’s best to do real emailing. And by “real” emailing” I mean when you spend a chunk of time devoted to working through a bunch of emails, and not when you send a one-off urgent response to something from your iphone or from your computer while you’re typing furiously in a Word document to meet a deadline in another screen.

Here are the best times, according to yours truly:

  • As much as possible, email should be done in bulk. There are always one-off exceptions to this rule, but in order to attain true productivity you need to slot the bulk of your emailing into specific times of the day – and preferably not too many times! The alternative, which most of us fall into the trap of, is doing our “real” work all day with email perpetually in the background, ready to interrupt our concentration and derail us for the most minor of emails.
  • Email should be done when you have less energy, rather than more. So figure out when that is, whenever it is, and create a block of time in your schedule to fit in your emailing in that period. In my experience, the lull in the afternoon is a great time to go through a bunch of non-urgent emails.
  • If you believe in multi-tasking (which I do, within certain limits), email can even be a great candidate for a multitasking activity. Try emailing while listening to a conference call (on mute), while wrangling a kiddo or two, while watching the news, or while monitoring the spaghetti sauce.

So when do you get the bulk of your emailing done? Do you agree that email should be done when you have less energy – not more? What have you found work for you in taming the email beast?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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34 thoughts on “When is the Best Time to Respond to Emails?

  1. Your are absolutely right about this.emails do kill our most precious morning time.
    I didn’t even though nk about this ealies.thanks for a info.it will help for better time management.

  2. That’s true, emailing kills a lot of time and energy while you have some pending task; project or report. But, it differs based on nature of work you do. For example, if a major part of your work is related to providing updates and reports to your colleagues or supervisors on daily basis, then it IS a productive work and you have to spend time on it to tackle it properly. Except only in cases where there is a very urgent task, in my case, I have to respond to my emails as and when I receive them.

  3. We are in a highly competitive sector and needs to respond our customers in a minute or so or they can easily prefer others. So, checking emails a few a times a day is not enough. What can we do?

    Maybe we can assign one person responsibility to burden the incoming emails and if they are important let us know or if they are not, put them into the bulk list that will be fetched a few times a day.

  4. You know, I understand why people think this, but for me, email is how work comes in and how it gets collaborated on and how it gets “shipped out”.

  5. Claire, thanks for your post. I agree with all – except for the part where you’re emailing “while wrangling a kiddo or two”… I’ve got 2 boys, ages 4 and 2, and it’s important that the limited time my husband and I have to spend with them in the evenings is prioritized for them.
    I have had all day to work, and I’ll keep working once they’re in bed, but that time between the afternoon pick up and bed time is sacred and shall not be interrupted with an email (or ten.)

    Lisa

  6. The only thing I disagree with is working on email while listening to a conference call. I work on a multi-national team, so in-the-conference-room meetings are a thing of the past. Instead, we have conference calls. And invariably, someone asks person B a question, no answer. “Person B? Are you there?” “Oh, yes, could you repeat the question?” Which is really code for, I was working on my email and NOT PAYING ATTENTION. Conference calls take twice as long as a face-to-face meeting would simply because many things have to be repeated. So please, don’t advocate working on emails during a conference call. Have a little respect for the rest of the team.

    • Obviously if it’s a call in which you have some participation you can’t. But if you spend hours a week on 40 person calls, I do think some multi-tasking at select times can take place;)

    • Totally agree!
      For me it’s better to ask whether my participation is really required. If it is, I’m IN the meeting, if it’s not, it’s pointless being there, I can read the minutes later.
      If my participation is required and I have something important to do, I explain so, and try to find another slot.

  7. I am a great fan of yours and always follow you.
    As always, what you have said here is SO true. I do my mails first thing in the morning. And am often confronted with the situation that by the time I finish my emails and come to REAL work, I have lost all my morning energy! Why do I still do it? Because unless I have cleared all the clutter (and emails waiting-to-be-seen are clutter to my mind), I cant do any creative work. What should I do?
    Please help!

    • Exactly!

      Do the creative work FIRST. Hold off on email for 2 hours. If you absolutely must, check email quickly on your computer or iphone to make sure there are no emergencies, and then do your creative work;) Do REAL emailing later;)

  8. I agree with the “don’t check first thing in the morning” and the “do in bulk”, however my job as an Operations Manager means that I have to check first thing to make sure that customers haven’t changed their plans (affecting my crews’ working day) or that there isn’t some emergency to attend to. I am actually off email more than many people like as they seem to want instant responses no matter when they email and at the same time want instant excellent service, which I can’t provide unless I am off the computer! 🙂
    As for multi-tasking, I am not a big fan and try to avoid it – very difficult in my position, which might explain why I love it when I can just focus on one thing. My best work is done when I can focus solely on one task,; if emailing while on a conference call, you are likely to miss a detail or three or fail to think of an option which would normally be caught and in my position that can impact the bottom line quickly.
    What works? Do in bulk, deal with them all, get inbox to zero or as near as and either delete emails or put into another folder, flag for follow up or put in calendar. Keep sent and deleted email folders cleared as well – when you receive a lot of email, stay on top of it or get buried fast. 🙂

    • I am in a job of field operations and decisions made on 3 continents, covering 7 time zones. There is not a better time that another, and it does not matter what my energy level is! Outside “normal” office hours at my location, I only look at my mail through a smartphone. Different groups of people have different emai/phone/sms alert tones and hence I know when I have to read the mail and take action if required. The rule is between 10:30 PM – 5:30 AM – emergency SMS is all I would look at.

  9. I like to take a quick look, first in the morning, to my emails, marking what can be important, but if there is not anything urgent, I close the computer: the morning should be dedicated to yourself, try to relax, no hurry, enjoy your coffee or breakfast.
    Your mind is rested, you have more energy, this should be the your best moment for thinking, reflect or simply organize your day. Some people like to meditate, others doing exercise, should be a relaxing time, but possibly productive.
    I personally do Tai-chi, because I like it after I learned Chinese Medicine and also now in my life I have more time to spend in the morning, but you can find what is the best for you. I have to mention, if you have a partner, this can be the best time for talking, before going to work or before the kids are up.
    During the day, I try to respond, when I have a little time or a break during work, to the emails that I have previously marked as important or urgent, but is in the evening when I take care of the rest.
    The evening is my less productive time, but even if I’m tired, I try to do do something else, like watching a video (no TV please, if you can) or listen to music (Pandora is good for that); if for any reason you are behind, don’t worry, there always the week-end.

    • I do the same thing — a quick scan on my iphone to make sure nothing critical needs to be addressed. (It is very rare that something critical does need to be addressed first thing!)

  10. I think your suggestion “do email when you have less energy” works for many people and I agree that many emails needn’t be essays or works of art but I have to object a little. As a development-oriented marketing guy, I always pursue the face to face but emails are a step in that direction and can a poorly articulated value statement in an email can torpedo your chances of ever actually meeting with someone. Perhaps some people can easily convey somewhat complex ideas via email while multitasking but my experience, receiving (and occasionally sending) confusing emails with sigh-worthy typos, has proven that many folks cannot.

    • Hm — so what are you suggesting? Less emails and more face-to-face? Hard for many professionals who work with teams and partners all over the world…

  11. Well, as I work in the field, away from my computer and even though I have a smart phone and could look at my emails during the day, I am busy actually working throughout the day. I enjoy starting my morning with a couple of cups of coffee and going through the emails at 5:30, 6:00 am. Then I don’t worry about them until I get back home in the evening.

    Of course, my assistant is the one who actually handles all the business related emails throughout the day, so maybe we should get her input!

  12. I’m a former investigative journalist, now leading three lives: as a marketing communications/innovation consultant, film/TV scriptwriter and technologist, building a context engine (a kind of anti-Google) w/two partners. Balancing all that means I have two significant windows—before 630a and while everybody else is offta lunch: 1230-130p. (I work from home and love it, because I actually have a life with my wife and kids.) I’m in Ontario, on NY time, with several key colleagues in LA and SF CA, so it works.

    Contrariwise, my clients love hearing from me first thing (I’ve asked: ROI on their hard-earned spend); I find the best open/response rates are 2pET onwards.

    I use my iPhone’s VIP email function to screen all but key folk. That’s a huge help, esp in transit.

    I used to be totally ADD about this (yep; I was diagnosed last year, at the ripe age of 48) and the discipline of meditation/long distance running (and your PRESENT discipline, for sure!) has really helped me wean myself off the “email hit” addiction and to think through best-use of time and its rhythms with my own productivity/creativity.

    Thanks for all you’re sharing: it’s great stuff.

    • That’s great you’ve actually asked your clients what they prefer — I think many of us could benefit greatly from doing that.

      And YES — the “email high” of constant is always a problem…

  13. Thank you, Claire, for the perspective of e-mail not being work! I have used e-mail as an exercise of accomplishment and reward. I read and respond to e-mail in 20 to 30 minute sessions followed by a simple but more rewarding task (reading a chapter in a book or watching a short educational video). The afternoons and less productive cycles later in the day that you mention do seem to work the best. I find that long, singular times spent in routine e-mail leave an impression of loss in productivity.

  14. Some very true comments here. I particularly agree with the idea of clearing emails in bulk. I make most progress through them sitting in a coffee shop for an hour or two and bashing through them. Definitely works when energy is low but also if I head into London early for a meeting first thing and go to Starbucks for a while. Something about the atmosphere there that makes it easy to zone out and get through them.