I delay writing back to people and then never do it — can I fix this?

A reader writes:

I have a terrible block when it comes to writing (back to) people. I get very anxious about writing the “right thing” in different situations — when I need to say no (even for a trivial reason like “I don’t have time this week for a call”), when I’m not exactly sure how to answer, when I need to give a critique, or when I need to ask someone for something — and I put it off. Then the longer I wait, the more guilty I feel.

In general, I don’t do this with my own colleagues or clients or partners. It tends to happen with others. For example:

* When I left a previous job (voluntarily – they didn’t want me to leave) I didn’t let my broader contacts know, only my direct clients, as I was embarrassed that the job hadn’t worked out.
* I promised to check around for a contact with any ideas for possible funders of a documentary she was working on, and never did.
* I was informally offered a role as a consultant with a network whose work I greatly admire and instead of directly saying, “I’m probably going to be joining another org, but thank you so much,” I said “sounds great!” and never got back in touch.

Often I’m not quite sure how to respond and I don’t want to send a less-than-fully considered answer (this is where my perfectionism plays out at its worst, although I am managing it okay in most other ways), but then end up never writing, e.g. I don’t know the answer to a question that’s being asked, I’m unsure of the right words to phrase an email that I’m worried the other person may not like, or even I’m feeling so happy about a piece of good news that an email seems inadequate and I think I should send a card instead but then end up not getting in touch at all, etc.

Or I’m avoiding discomfort, e.g. I don’t want to say no to someone asking for funding, I don’t want to say that I don’t have time in the near future to talk with someone who’s asking for a short call, I am reluctant to reach out to someone I haven’t talked with in a while to ask them for a favor, I don’t want to ask someone to do something, I’m not ready to think about whether or not to take on someone who’s asking for an internship for a summer that’s still eight months away…

There seems to be a short window of a day or two or three within which, if i could respond, I would be able to do so in a non-anxious way. After that, the guilt at not having responded in a more timely manner kicks in, I then feel like I need to make up for my delay by writing “an even better” note, but since nothing has changed that would make that more likely, I still don’t do it and it spirals from there.

Despite this habit, I’ve done well in my career so far, thanks to many advantages, lots of luck, and a good work ethic (other than this bad habit). I currently work on the management team at an NGO working for a cause I care deeply about, and was recruited into my last three jobs based on my reputation or their past experience of working with me.

But writing the above out, I’m ashamed. I would be shocked if I heard of anyone else in a senior role in an organization — or indeed anyone who had managed to make it to middle age – acting like this. It’s absolutely not who I want to be either as a professional or as a friend. And yet I can’t seem to shake this habit.

First, fundamentally: How can I change this? Can others relate or am I alone in this neurosis? Any advice on helping to get past this block of my own making?

Second, for this situation overall: Is it too late? Is there anything I can do to make up for my (lack of) response? I’m fully prepared that many of my relationships will never be the same, but is it still better to reach out anyway? Is there anything I can do to at least partly make amends?

Third, practically speaking: What should I say? How much should I try to apologize / explain? There is no good excuse for my (lack of) action. The problem is that my good intentions aren’t translating into actions. Yet it sounds insincere to say, “I’m sorry, please know i’ve been thinking of you” (“if you were thinking of me why didn’t you get in touch?”) And I don’t want the focus to be on me. Yet I feel like I should say something that indicates how sorry I am because I don’t want them to think I didn’t care.

What else should I say? Respond to their request even if it’s no longer needed? Say that I was thinking of them and wanted to say hello? Update them on what I’m doing? Offer to be of help in general? Send along an interesting article? Etc.

Any advice would be so much appreciated. Thank you so much.

You can change this! Can we make this your new year’s resolution? I really do think you can change this, and it will probably be easier than you think once you try it.

Some things that I think you’re not accounting for:

1. People are aware that other people are busy! If you respond a few weeks late and say something like, “I’m so sorry for my delay in responding to this — I’ve been swamped and in triage mode, but I wanted to get back to you even though it may be too late,” most people will understand. They’ll appreciate the response, they’ll get that you’ve been busy, and they’re unlikely to think negative things about you. Busy-ness is a known state. If you don’t reply at all, that’s when you’ll seem unreliable. If you don’t respond at all, people will be more likely to think “There’s no point in emailing Jane about this because she didn’t respond last time” or even “Huh, Jane never got back to me, that feels kind of rude.” But responding late — even very late — changes that, as long as you acknowledge the delay and include some kind of explanation or apology.

2. People understand no’s. Really, they do. When someone asks you a favor, 99% of the time they’re aware that the answer might end up being no. As long as you’re nice about it, it’s really pretty normal to say no to things. I suspect you just need the wording to do it, so here are your new form letters:

  • “Thanks so much for thinking of me for this! I’d love to say yes, but my workload is crazy right now, and I’m trying to be disciplined about not taking on anything new. So I need to pass, but the project sounds great and I wish you luck with it! I’d love to hear how it went when you’re done with it.”
  • “I’m in triage mode with my schedule this week and next, to the point that scheduling a call would be hard. I can answer a quick question or two over email if that would help — but if not, I understand and hope you can find the answers you need some other way.”
  • “Thanks for contacting me about this. I’d love to say yes, but I’m fully booked for the next couple of weeks. I’m sorry I can’t help!”

3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: If you ask someone for a favor, would you rather hear a “no, I’m sorry I can’t” up-front, or would you rather hear “yes” and then spend weeks/months wondering why it’s not happening and why the other person ghosted you? It sounds like you are putting way too much weight on satisfying people with an immediate “yes” and way too little weight on what happens after that. People care about what actually happens, not what you say will happen. So by saying yes and then disappearing, you are setting people up to be confused/frustrated/hurt/disappointed/angry. It’s like in your quest to avoid a mild flick on someone’s arm (the immediate “no, sorry”), you’re punching them in the gut a month later instead. It’s not a logical trade-off.

4. You cannot go through life ensuring that all interactions with other humans are free of discomfort. You are going to sometimes have to deliver uncomfortable news, or say no, or ask someone for a favor. In your quest to avoid doing that stuff, you’re actually just signing yourself up for a whole different (and worse) type of discomfort — the discomfort you’re feeling now about being someone who flakes out on people. So there’s really no discomfort-free path. It’s just a question of which kind you want. If I asked you to choose between (1) mild, up-front discomfort of saying no/delivering bad news/etc. or (2) long, lingering discomfort of knowing that you let someone down/flaked on a commitment/stopped responding, and now need to feel awkward for months/years about contacting them, would you really choose #2? I don’t think you would, but you’re picking it now by default because you’re so focused on avoiding #1 that you’re not being clear-eyed that #2 is the price.

Assuming you want to interact with other humans, you’ve got to pick #1 or #2. There are no other options.

Okay, now some concrete recommendations of what to do going forward:

1. First, no, it’s not too late to respond to some of these people. Even if it’s been months, you can email and say, “I’m so sorry I never got back to you about X over the summer. My schedule got overwhelming, and I should have reached out to update you sooner. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help with this, and I hope the project ended up going well.” (You do not need to then do the work you promised; in most cases, it’s going to be too late to be useful. Although if you’re still willing to, you can say, “Would it still be helpful for me to do X now? If so, I’d be glad to, although I realize the window may have closed.” But don’t offer this unless you’re 100% committed to doing it this time. If there’s any chance you won’t, it’s better not to include that offer.)

2. It sounds like you’re not just declining to say no, but that you’re also saying yes to things you don’t necessarily want to do, like that contact who wanted ideas for documentary funders or the offer for consulting work. I very much know that feeling in the moment of “sure, of course I can do this!” and then realizing later that you can’t or don’t want to. Obviously, you want to get better at thinking things through before you commit to them, but if you do find yourself in that position, in some cases it’s okay to write back and say, “I know I said yes to this, but I’ve realized that my schedule is making it impossible to do it justice. I will definitely let you know if I think of contacts for you, but for now it probably doesn’t make sense to count on me for this.” Obviously you can’t do this when it’s the week before someone’s wedding and you agreed to make the cake for them, but if it’s more like “Bob asked six people, including me, to read his screenplay,” it can be an option.

But ideally, you’d head that off by being more realistic right from the start. Some things you can try:

  • Don’t say yes to anything unless you are willing to put time on your calendar right now to do it in the next week. If you’re saying yes thinking you’ll do it at some hazy future point, say no because what you’ve learned is that it’s not likely to happen. (This won’t work for everything, but it’ll work for some things.)
  • If you don’t feel equipped to figure out if your answer is yes or no right now, say that and ask for more time. That person who wants an internship eight months from now? Write back and say, “I won’t be able to start planning for fall interns until June. Can you reach out then and we’ll talk more then?” That job offer you accepted that you didn’t actually follow through on? It might have been better to have said, “Thanks for this offer! I’d like to take a few days to think it over, but I’ll get back to you by Friday.”

3. Stop waiting for perfect. In most cases, people like timely responses more than they like “perfect” responses written several weeks too late. Effectively immediately, take “perfect” off the table as a goal or at least redefine it. For you, “perfect” is “I respond within two days,” regardless of how flawless the content is. In your case, “flawless” ends up meaning “never happens,” so it can’t be in the equation.

4. Set aside 30-60 minutes a day to deal with emails that you’re avoiding. Every day between 9 and 10 a.m. (or whatever you choose), you’re going to sit down and respond to the emails that you’ve been putting off. If you don’t know an answer or don’t have time to fully consider a question, in most cases you can say that. It’s okay to say “sorry, but I don’t actually know” or “I’d need to take more time to think about this — do you want to give me a call so we can talk it through?”

And since you sometimes put off emails thinking you’d rather send a card, and the card never happens, permanently take cards off the table as an option. You no longer send cards in this context. You send emails. That’s it. The emails have the big advantage, in that they will actually arrive.

5. You can take a similar approach with non-email stuff that you’re avoiding. I once read about something called “guilt hour,” where a bunch of office mates would meet in a conference room and take turns announcing the undone task they felt guilty about putting off, and then they’d each spend the rest of the hour tackling that task. Have your own guilt hour.

This is already a long answer and we haven’t even covered everything, but start here. If you really do these things, it’s going to solve a big chunk of the problem. And I think this stuff has its own momentum — once you get into these habits and see how frickin’ nice it feels not to be walking around with tasks and guilt hanging over you all the time, it becomes self-reinforcing. It’s easier to keep making these choices when you see that they leave you feeling good, not bad like the previous methods did.

Try it and tell us how it goes?

{ 241 comments… read them below }

      1. Jesca*

        Do you have any idea how absolutely relieving it is to know that I am not the only “jerk” out there doing this?! They have a whole day for it?!!?

        I have felt so terribly guilty and irresponsible about this habit of mine, and I did legitimately feel like a jerk. That only made everything worse. I am so book marking Alison’s response (and taking advantage of this day)!

    1. Esme Squalor*

      I also came here to post this! Listening to the podcast about it (and the hosts’ discussion of their anxiety around unanswered emails) may also help OP to not feel so alone.

    2. Close Bracket*

      Don’t feel you have to wait for April 30! I offered to perform a service for someone probably six months ago and got overwhelmed by other things shortly after and never followed up. I’m about to reach back out to them and plea for email forgiveness.

    3. Canto Bight*

      I was also coming to the comments to spread the word of E-mail Debt Forgiveness Day! Even if it’s not April 30th, it’s helped me get over some of my mental blocks about email debts.

    4. Corinne Brzeski*

      I came here to say this too. I don’t know if I would use their template for work emails, but I wanted OP to know s/he is DEFINITELY not alone. Tons of people have this issue.

    1. trigger*

      That’s a really cool idea for personal emails but I wouldn’t use it for work ones. It comes across too glib and cutesy (“oops, I didn’t bother to reply to you and I [emphasis on my feelings] feel guilty about that so I’ve postponed my reply even longer until today so I can send it including a link to a website that does the work of expressing my guilt for me!”)

      I’d be very unamused receiving a work related email on April 30 like that.

  1. MuseumChick*

    OP I completely understand this. I’m still not totally over it but I’ve go through the same kind of anxiety about responding to people (its way worse with phone calls). Alison is spot on with the language to use, anything along the lines of: “Sorry this took so long!” or “I apologize for the delay.”

    It helped me to think about it this way: Even if I say the wrong thing, what is the worst that could happen? Will the global economy collapse? Will anyone end up in the hospital?

    It can also help to set expectation in a under-promise-over-deliver kind of way if you can. “It could take me a few weeks to get you that information.” Then if you respond within a week the person is happy!

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I definitely have this problem, partly because my inbox is so overwhelming all the time (I have one of those kinds of jobs) that I dread working through the requests. Even when they’re small, and I’m sure the individual thinks it’s crazy that I can’t answer their quick question – what they don’t understand is that literally every time I check my inbox, 30 other people are asking me one quick question. My goal is just to get back to everyone by the end of every day, even if it’s “Sorry, ask Ed.”

    2. Mabel*

      It helped me to think about it this way: Even if I say the wrong thing, what is the worst that could happen? Will the global economy collapse? Will anyone end up in the hospital?

      This is helpful to me because I tend to overthink what I’m writing, and then I start to wonder if saying X or Y is going to offend someone or sound bad in some way. Another thing that helped was to read other people’s emails to me. They are not worded the way I would write, and they are usually not “perfect” by my arbitrary measure, but they’re FINE. So I try to copy their “brief and FINE” style.

      And this seems like it might be the opposite problem, but I think it’s related: It has really been helpful for me to know that a lot of people don’t get it right on the first draft. I’ll write the email and then re-read it and think for a minute. If it doesn’t say what I want it to say, I fix it so it does. And I also have to add in all of the niceties that don’t come automatically to me (“Happy New Year!,” “Hope you’re doing well,” “Thanks for your quick response!,” “Enjoy the weekend,” etc.). Then off it goes.

      1. Natalie*

        It has really been helpful for me to know that a lot of people don’t get it right on the first draft.

        One of my dad’s slogans is “generate first, edit later”, which I heard over and over and over in high school and college, and still remind myself at work occasionally.

  2. Kate*


    Seriously, I once avoided opening an email for *two years* because I was afraid of what it would say and I didn’t want to get into a confrontation about it.

    When I finally opened it, do you know what it said? “Okay.”

    It kills me to think of how much space in my brain got wasted on worrying/feeling guilty/avoiding that stupid email.

    1. Little Twelvetoes*

      No, THIS is me! So many times I have sat shaking with fear and dread about opening a piece of or responding to mail/email. Pretty much every time, my fear was for not, but I made the situation so much worse in my mind.

    2. Mabel*

      In these situations (potentially fraught messages), it might be helpful to have a trusted friend open the email and read it and summarize it for you. Or tell you it’s fine for you to read it.

    3. jamie*

      Oh my gosh, this is totally me. I often avoid opening emails, mail, etc. because I’m afraid of what it’s going to be about. It’s a huge relief to know that I’m not the only person who deals with this. I don’t know how to fix it completely, as I think it has to do with anxiety as well, but it’s seriously helpful to know it’s not just me.

    4. Parenthetically*

      I do this with snail mail too. So much anxiety. Thankfully my husband checks the mail now.

      1. Anonymoose*

        Me too. You should see the pile. In my head I tell myself that everything is on auto-pay so nothing truly important is coming in, but I still can’t seem to bring myself to open it. It’s like I think it will attack me or something. *shudder*

      2. All Hail Queen Sally*

        Me too!! I didn’t get all my Christmas cards sent out last month because I owe everybody letters and just didn’t know what to say.

  3. KHB*

    I don’t know how relevant this is for you, but something that helped me get over my email block is understanding that it’s OK to hold my cards close to my chest. A big part of my job involves writing to people to ask for advice – which means following up with them to thank them for that advice. At first, it was overwhelming, because I felt I had to explain everything to each and every one of them – did we take their advice or not, what our next steps were going to be, etc. Now, I just say something like “Thank you very much for the advice – this helps us a lot. We’ll make our decision later this week,” or whatever.

    1. boo*

      Very much this-I tend to feel the need to explain, and it’s been liberating to just give the person the information that is strictly relevant to them.

      It’s not my responsibility to satisfy all potential questions and concerns on the first go; that’s what the phrase “Please let me know if you have any questions” is for!

      1. Natalie*

        Yes, I got into a bad habit of putting in tons of background information because my first set of bosses expected it (they had trust issues). Occasionally I still struggle to write an email because I want to put in all that backstory, so I type it all out, save the email for a short period, and then come back and ruthlessly cut anything that isn’t critical to getting to the point.

        1. DecorativeCacti*

          I always try to think about how I feel when I get those novels of emails. I end up frustrated because I’m trying to skim through and figure exactly what I’m supposed to do or know.

          I started writing “bullet point” emails because of this. I don’t actually use bullet points but instead write short, clearly defined paragraphs, preferably with action items. Instead of, “How should I handle X?” I say, “I would like to handle this like Y, but Z could also work. Can I go ahead with Y?”

        2. boo*

          @Natalie: Yup, my need to explain comes from dealing with some people who would seize every opportunity to assume the worst. (Or, failing that, create their own opportunity.) It gave me bad habits…

  4. Temperance*

    LW, I have anxiety and this is one of the ways it manifests for me. What has worked for me is writing every single thing in a lined steno book, and then crossing things off. Even basic things like “Respond to Joan’s email”.

    I also tend to set up email response time for myself later at night, so I won’t get an immediate response if I don’t have time to deal with something.

    1. Mabel*

      The “to do” list is something I do also (I even have “feed dogs” and “walk dogs” on my calendar – but to be fair, I share them with my ex, so I don’t have them every day). It’s so relieving when I hear about things that other people with anxiety and/or OCD do because it’s helps me to know that I’m not just f*cked up in general. There are reasons that certain things are hard for me.

    2. crookedfinger*


      If something takes less than 5 minutes, I tend to do it right away simply to get it off my desk/out of my mental space, but anything that’ll take longer and has the possibility of being forgotten goes on the notepad/Outlook task list. Plus, I take great pleasure in crossing things off a list. It’s like a high five to me from myself.

      1. Corinne*

        I used to do this – if it took a short amount of time, just do it right away. But then I moved into a different role with lots more incoming requests, and now I could literally reply to incoming issues all day and never get anything else done. I’m still struggling with how to adjust my email/task management in this new role.

  5. A*

    OP, have you heard of the Boomerang web app? It has been hugely helpful for me in tackling this exact bad habit. Among many other functions, you can use the app to have emails re-appear in your inbox within a certain window. Say you get an email and you’re feeling anxious to respond to it in that moment, but you know you’ll have a slow afternoon on Thursday. You can tell Boomerang to put that email back in your unread emails list at 1 pm on Thursday. That gives you time to psych yourself out to respond and reduces the chance that the email gets lost in the abyss.

    You are definitely not alone (I relate so hard!!), but like AAM says, you CAN make a change to your habits. Good luck :)

    1. London Bookworm*

      Yes, Google Inbox also has this feature (although they call it a ‘snooze’ function) and I find it incredibly helpful.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I love this GMail add-on and live and die by it. I also love that it lets me schedule when my responses send. It’s a fantastic tool.

  6. phil*

    I’m a perfectionist as well and after 71 years I can only observe that the perfect is the enemy of the good. It took me a long time to learn that.

    1. Pollygrammer*

      Sometimes I can harness my perfectionist tendencies by thinking holistically. “If I can send a good-enough response today or a ‘perfect’ response in a week, the ‘perfect’ response loses enough points from the delay that the good response is still an overall a superior option.”

    2. Dr Wizard, PhD*

      >the perfect is the enemy of the good

      That was the mantra my doctoral supervisor taught me, and it helped so much.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        My PhD advisor, who had me go through 26 drafts of my dissertation, clearly was unfamiliar with the expression.

        OTOH, now when I write a first draft, I usually nail it. (Meaning both that it’s sufficiently good as it is and that no one could possibly care if it’s a tiny smidge better)

    3. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo*

      I used to have a boss that said “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough”.

      I’ve adopted that, as many time perfect isn’t a requirement for the task at hand.

    4. Mabel*

      And if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing half-assed! (not literally, of course, but this can motivate me quite a bit)

    5. LBK*

      I think for those of us with perfectionist tendencies, the key is redefining “perfect”. As Alison says, set your goal for a successful email as one that goes out in a maximum of 48 hours, no matter what it says. You just have to say something, and if you don’t send a reply within that time frame, that’s a failure. That way you can redirect your perfectionist energy into something that’s actually more productive than focusing it on rewriting the “perfect” email for 6 months until it’s no longer even relevant.

      1. Mints*

        I also will allow myself a generous amount of time to attempt “perfect” in active writing time. Like I’m going to work on making this email as perfect as possible, and I have two hours to do it. It definitely won’t take two hours of actively writing, but I have to send it by 8pm or whatever.

  7. Squeeble*

    Wow, two years is an impressive feat! I’ve done this before, but only for an afternoon (and even then it was the same thing–what I feared might be angry response turned out to be “Okay, thanks”).

  8. MissDisplaced*

    I often struggle with crafting the “perfect” email response, and it can take me forever to compose something as I am often WAY overthinking it.
    It might help you to have a Word document with about 15-25 “Prepared Responses to Typical Things.”
    That sounds kind of funny, but in the working world you do tend to see similar requests. It’s much easier to start with a message and modify/personalize it slightly, than to recreate a message every time.
    And yes, don’t agree to do something if you can’t or don’t really want to do it. It’s better to say no than not follow-through or respond for 2 months.

    1. Snark*

      I do this. Especially when I was in charge of a monthly invoicing and reporting function that required getting input from 30 people, at least 5 of whom would need the same damn series of “Hey, Thing is due,” “Second warning, Thing is due,” “God dammit, send me Thing by noon or I come looking for you” sent to them every single month.

      1. Myrin*

        This is off-topic, but I remember that you’ve described what you look like before and now I’m endlessly amused by the mental image I have of you physically coming after the hapless person who didn’t get Thing to you soon enough.

          1. Myrin*

            Bearded, tall, and burly (I don’t 100% remember the last one but if you didn’t say it, I definitely substituted it in my mind), and also what state you’re from but since I’m from the other side of the world, that didn’t really tell me anything other than that I know generally that it exists (Colorado??). I assure you it wasn’t weird, it was in a thread about masculinity and sexism and your comment was along the lines of “dude, I look XY and I still do household chores” (it wasn’t actually about chores but I forgot the topic).

            1. Snark*

              Huh. OK! I guess it was more on topic than I thought – I was hoping it hadn’t been weird. Whew. Though, for the record, while I am bearded, and somewhat tall, I am not a physically intimidating fellow.

              And yes, I do live in Colorado. Good memory!

    2. TootsNYC*

      another advantage to having these “canned” things is that it gets you STARTED easily, and sometimes that’s the only hump you need to get over.

      Another practical tactic that might be helpful is to tell yourself that some of these emails have to be three sentences, NO MORE.

      1. Queen of the File*

        YES. SO much easier than waiting for brand new words to form in the brain while blinking cursor just sits there judging your empty reply.

    3. London Bookworm*

      Yes – and many e-mail clients will let you save these as templates, so when you reply you can easily select one, it will autofill (you can edit as necessary) and then it will send. It removes so much mental effort.

      1. Starryemma*

        Yes, I do this with Outlook. I have a bunch of different email signatures, prefilled with common responses. I can just select the response I want, and don’t have to retype anything!

          1. Snark*

            I love it when people learn something new about an Office suite program that very literally changes their life. For me, it was Format Painter.

            1. Natalie*

              I literally just learned about Autosum and the keyboard shortcut and my quest to never use a physical calculator again is just that much closer to fruition.

    4. JessaB*

      Oh gods yes, boilerplate is your amazing friend. I’d go nuts if I had to rethink every single response to common things.

    5. JessB*

      I was going to suggest something like this- email signatures prepared as generic responses, maybe starting with the ones that Alison suggested. That way you can just choose a response, personalise it a little, and send it off.

  9. Snark*

    “If I asked you to choose between (1) mild, up-front discomfort of saying no/delivering bad news/etc. or (2) long, lingering discomfort of knowing that you let someone down/flaked on a commitment/stopped responding, and now need to feel awkward for months/years about contacting them, would you really choose #2?”

    This is what I think it really boils down to, but I think it’s also externalized: you’re attempting to avert the recipient’s up-front mild discomfort of receiving a no or bad news by kicking the can down the road, but then inflicting on them the lingering discomfort of ghosting. So I think part of what’s going to help you, OP, is realizing that this is not just a disservice to you, but to the people who are getting in touch with you, and you’re bringing about the awkwardness you’re attempting to avoid.

    My solution to this issue is sticking all emails that need responding to but which aren’t necessarily related to my core job duties, and once or twice a week, I get up at 5 and pad into my office and answer them. Warm cup of coffee, cold dog nose, nobody else is up, it’s great.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I’ve also realized that a very imperfect answer that doesn’t give them what they want – “sorry, I can’t get to this today” – even though it feels terrible to send that, is actually MORE HELPFUL to that person than my usual go-to of me thinking I’ll try to get to it and then never getting to it until it falls off my plate and I forget. At least they have the clarity to keep looking elsewhere for what they need.

      1. Snark*

        Or even just a flat, “Sorry, I don’t have room on my plate to get to this in a timely fashion, best of luck getting this resolved!” People are busy. They understand if you’re busy. They don’t understand why you don’t reply.

        1. Lil Fidget*

          It’s hard because I probably *would* be mildly annoyed to get an email like that, so I realize that by sending it I’m going to create an unpleasant reaction. But better that mild unpleasantness than the complete obstruction of my never responding at all.

    2. Engineer Girl*

      I’m going to agree with this. This isn’t really about email. OP, I see a larger problem of passive agressive behavior. You said yes when you really wanted to say no (the consulting job). This behavior can utterly destroy close relationships, especially across time. People will see you as flakey or a liar because you won’t be honest with them up front.
      You might want to try some behavioral counseling sessions to find out the “why” behind your behavior. You also can get scripts you can use.
      But please stop saying yes if your intention is “no”.

  10. Hate 2B Ignored*

    I deal with a lot of people like this and it’s annoying. I congratulate you on wanting to correct this bad habit. Because the message that comes across is not “I’m busy and important” or “I’m a perfectionist” but rather “I’m an a-hole who doesn’t care about your stupid request.” Try remembering this: People would rather be loved than hated, but they’d rather be hated than ignored.

    1. Kara_Lynn*

      Agreed. This is one of the key ways people don’t succeed in their roles – poor communication skills. Bravo that he/she is at least trying to correct it.

    2. Snark*

      Yeah, from the recipient end, it doesn’t come off as “I was meaning to but reasons,” or “I wanted to send a card instead,” it’s “Well, asshole never wrote me back, WTF.”

    3. AndersonDarling*

      Ugh! I have a relative like the OP. She will guess what the recipient wants here and say that even if it isn’t true or doable. If someone calls and asks how long she will be, she will say 5 minutes away even if she hasn’t gotten into the shower yet. If the boss asks how project X is going, she will give a big story on all the communications she had and all the work that was completed, when nothing was actually done. Other times there will be no response to urgent texts or phone calls.
      But its not about lying or making herself look good, its just that she wants to say The Right Thing. It’s like every communication is a possibility of friendship and a wrong response will trigger revulsion.
      It drives me bananas. When I ask a question, all I want is an answer, there is no ulterior motive or personal vendetta hidden in my words.. I just need information, truthful information.
      It’s great that the OP has recognized that it’s a problem and wants to correct it. Once the OP gets through the awkwardness and sees that there are no adverse effects, it should be easier each time.

      1. Snark*

        “But its not about lying or making herself look good, its just that she wants to say The Right Thing.”

        I’d argue that saying The Right Thing, whether it’s true or not, is in fact lying to make yourself look good. I’m not sure there’s a practical distinction there.

        1. Natalie*

          It might not be a practical distinction (and I’m not sure if this is what AndersonDarling means of course) but I think there is a distinction between trying to “look good” out of self-aggrandizement versus anxiety or self revulsion or similar. And a lie requires intent, IMO.

          Not that these distinctions matter recipient necessarily, but when you’re trying to correct the behavior the reason for wanting to do The Right Thing does matter.

          1. Grad Student*

            I am sometimes like AndersonDarling’s relative (and I KNOW it’s horrible), not to the level of inventing big stories but definitely to the level of texting “running late but on my way!” before jumping into the shower. For me, I wouldn’t quite say it’s lying to make myself look good, but it’s lying to make myself look better–say, to look “baseline acceptable” rather than “a failure/just the worst.” Looking at these actions from a distance, I know that of course just saying the truth is better. In the case of being 5 min vs 20 min late, the truth is 100% going to come out, and in only 15 minutes! But in that moment, it sometimes feels awful and unacceptable to admit that I’m as late as I am.

            Knowing all this is relevant to my attempts to correct my behavior/address my anxiety and general jerkbrain issues, but not really relevant to the people I’m talking to.

    4. BRR*

      This is one of my pet peeves as well. Someone in my department recently won an organization award (with a cash prize) and I honestly think she didn’t deserve it because she’s so awful with overall organization and in particular replying to things. I don’t mean to suggest LW that you’re disorganized, but that’s the impression it can give off. I view it as an essential part of most jobs.

    5. Close Bracket*

      As annoying as it is not to get a response, we have a choice about how to view the nonresponder. I don’t view them as assholes. I understand that sometimes, you just don’t get a response. Since I have occasionally been guilty of this myself, I cut people slack and remind myself that yeses come immediately, while nos never come. If I don’t get a response, I move forward assuming the answer is no.

      1. Hate 2B Ignored*

        Yes, we have a choice about how to view nonresponders. And I choose to view them as the disrespectful, arrogant jerks that they are.

        1. Natalie*

          That seems… really unnecessarily harsh given the conversation that’s happening here. But you do you, I guess.

        2. Kiwi*

          I’ve seen the inboxes of a few top executives in our company. They’re genuinely polite caring people, but they get sent and cc-ed on a huge number of emails – hundreds a day. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for them to answer all those emails, they’d never get anything else done.

          I’ve learnt two things from that. First, I don’t take it personally if a busy person doesn’t answer my email, and second, I make the subject line very clear, because it’s what people use to decide whether to read my email. If my subject line tells the recipient exactly what I need her to deal with, I’m much more likely to get an answer.

          Oh, and if something’s really urgent, I phone. Email isn’t always the best means of communication.

    6. Jennifer*

      As long as you write back at all, really. I have been blown off/ignored so many freaking times. You learn that if someone doesn’t get back to you fast, they will probably be ghosting/ignoring. Or if they write back claiming they’ll write back later and never do, ends up being the same thing.

      I should probably disclaim that I have been ticked at someone for not responding for weeks on end recently. Really wondering what it was I did wrong to get blown off, etc. Butthurt, even. But–for the first time ever– the person wrote back and apologized and said they’d had a bad thing happen during the holidays. You know what? All is forgiven by me now.

      Just write something fast, anything, even if not perfect, and get it done!

  11. Gene Parmesan*

    I really relate to this. I’ve tried to be better about reading and responding to emails in a timely manner, and I have gotten better, but I still have room for improvement. I loved Alison’s response and will be bookmarking this page for my own reference. One thing I’ve realized (in my rational brain; doesn’t mean I always take this to heart) is that the anticipation of worrying (What do I say? Will the person be disappointed at my response? Will they be disappointed at how long it took me to reply? Will they reply about how disappointed they are?) is almost always worse than just doing it.

  12. SansaStark*

    I do this, too. Especially when I don’t know how to start the email or when I’m not sure the best way to communicate something negative. I got myself in some pretty big trouble at work last year so between that and the advice here on how to actually stop doing this, I now have a new year’s resolution! :)

  13. SNS*

    This is definitely me. Especially in college, I was so bad at not following up with professors and internships because I was paralyzed by fear of rejection and it really hurt me when I left school and tried to get a job. For me, getting therapy to deal with my anxiety over rejection in general really helped me move past this bad habit and for when I do get stuck, not be afraid to say “Sorry for the delay!”

  14. Heather*

    I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum. I sometimes respond to emails TOO quickly. However, my boss sounds more like you. She has mentioned multiple times she likes to think through her responses before sending. I told her I’d prefer a “Looking into this” email and then a follow up a few days later. IMO, expecting a response to an email in 1-2 business days isn’t unreasonable, and if it goes longer than that I follow up. My boss and I have come to a some what agreement of that so I try to not get as annoyed with her.

    1. Gloucesterina*

      Thanks for posting this, Heather. This is a great example of using words to communicate how you plan to communicate with someone you work with on an ongoing basis, such as a boss or employee.

    2. Lil Fidget*

      Yes, agree that it’s good to send an “I’m looking into this” email so they don’t get no response (now my problem is that I will often forget to circle back again, sadface – but better organization is my resolution this year).

    3. Malibu Stacey*

      Yes, this can happen with rejection emails – either for job openings or when I worked in publishing and I sent rejections for unsolicited proposals. If you send the rejection email too soon, people think you didn’t give it enough consideration and can take it personally.

    4. Ghost Town*

      I like to use the “Looking into this” email, too. Especially in cases where I can answer A and B, but not C right away. Person gets a response. Quick answers are delivered, and other question gets acknowledged. If appropriate for the recipient, I’ll even throw in a “If you don’t hear from me in X time frame, contact me again.” Now the requester shares some responsibility for the request (it was usually a student asking for an exception to policy) and I get a reminder in case it slips my mind and to do list.

  15. London Bookworm*

    If no one else has mentioned this already: set-up some email templates! The vast majority of email clients let you do this, which (for relevant emails) will eliminate the hurdle of having to debate wording in the moment.

    This won’t solve all your email problems, but it can certainly help, especially for the ‘politely saying no’ ones. It’s not rude to stick to a few well-worded templates.

    Also useful (for me) is the snooze feature in Inbox which allows e-mails to resurface when they’re most relevant. I think Boomerang also provides this, and I know of colleagues who use e-mails folders with labels like “to respond” or “awaiting reply”. These can help keep your inbox tidy, which helps reduce pile-up!

    1. Melissa C.*

      I came here to recommend Inbox by Gmail, but you beat me to it! Inbox has changed the way I tackle email. It’s magic!

      1. London Bookworm*

        Yes. I’m a huge fan. When I first got it, I was really skeptical, and it took me a few months to figure out how to organize it so it worked for me, but now I love it.

      2. Annie Moose*

        The other thing I love about Inbox is that it really encourages me to have a clean inbox. (you can very easy archive emails by clicking one button–or swiping, on the app–so they no longer appear on the main screen) So there’s that extra enticement to do something about the emails in my inbox, so I can experience that delightful feeling of clicking the checkmark and watching the email go away.

        Maybe this sounds silly, but it seriously works for me!

        1. Melissa C.*

          Yep. That is a great feature. I think my favorite one is the “Trips” bundles – I make a point of putting any and all trip related emails into the right “bundle” and then there’s no panic at the airport of “oh crap, what was my confirmation number”! Anyway, I’m getting off topic, so I’ll stop here.

  16. AttyInTX*

    There is that advice that if something is going to take 2 minutes or less, just do it right then — that applies to chores and such, but I try to apply it to email too. If I can respond right then, just do it right then, even if it interrupts something else. Then it is done, and you don’t have to remember it later (often I forget/lose emails in my busy inbox). And I totally feel that pressure to write a perfect response too, especially the longer the email has been sitting. But if I respond right away, them it feels more acceptable that the email is quick/short/imperfect. I really struggle with this in personal emails — an old friend who wants to know how I am doing, for example. I tell myself I need time to respond, and then too much time goes by, and then I can’t send a short email after weeks, and then it builds and builds until I never respond. But if I respond right away with something short, at least I responded at all! Better something than nothing! OP, know you are not alone! Here’s to us all being better in 2018!

    1. LBK*

      I live by the “if it’s going to take <5 minutes, respond immediately" rule and it's how I keep my inbox freakishly clear and how I have a great reputation for responsiveness. And I even expand that to "If I can come up with any reply within 5 minutes, respond immediately," whether that reply is just confirming when they need it by, asking a quick clarification question, punting the request to someone else, etc. When it comes to gauging someone's responsiveness, I find that people really just want to know in a timely manner that you got their request and you're working on it; they're not as focused on how long it takes you to actually complete the request.

  17. KK*

    ” Really, they do. When someone asks you a favor, 99% of the time they’re aware that the answer might end up being no. As long as you’re nice about it, it’s really pretty normal to say no to things. ”

    Yes. This isn’t an exact comparison, but I can relate as someone who asks “favors” every week. I am the communion scheduler at my church. Every Tuesday, I send email requests to the 8 volunteers I need to fill this role for the following Sunday. The email literally has an “accept” button, and a “decline” button. They just have to click one or the other. About 80% of the volunteers respond with their acceptance or decline within a day or two. However, I ALWAYS have a select few that won’t respond until I follow up with them on Friday or Saturday. Once I send my follow up, I usually get an immediate response from the individual saying “sorry, I have X and can’t serve Sunday!”

    I totally understand that sometimes people have to say no to my requests! However, it’d be MUCH easier if these people just told me that early on! That way, I could move on to the next thing (in my case, finding another person to fill the serving role!)

    OP, just remember that when your response affects someone’s ability to move on with their job, they APPRECIATE you responding (especially in a timely manner!) even if the answer is a no!

    Good luck moving forward – it’s great that you’re recognizing this as an issue and trying to fix it. :)

  18. Colorado*

    I just came to say you are not alone. I definitely struggle from email anxiety and worse, voicemail anxiety. I’ll have 10 messages on my phone and won’t check them for weeks and weeks. I consider myself a business professional and try to be responsive but boy, there’s many times I cringe at opening an email or stress for days about compiling a response.

    1. Cath*

      I use Google Voice for my mailbox, which has an option to get a text message with a voice to text transcription of the voicemail. Sure, it gets garbled, but 90% of the time it’s close enough that I don’t actually have to listen to it. And if I do have to listen for specifics, I still usually get the gist if it. Changed my life.

    2. Jess R.*

      This is really only applicable to my personal life (which does involve plenty of requests and scheduling and so forth because I’m so heavily involved in my church) but I changed my outgoing voicemail message to say “Hi, you’ve reached Jess! Please leave a message or, better yet, send me a text!” I did it on a whim, but it’s been life changing — people actually follow up with texts and then I don’t have to listen to my voicemail, a task I loathe and fear beyond all natural reason.

  19. MK*

    OP, no offense, but people are not reverently examining your emails for subtle nuances, as if they were scholars studying apocryphal documents. They are more likely skimming them to get the message and deleting them immediately, so being invested in giving the perfect response is a waste if time and energy. Also, perfect is subjective; what reads as thoughtful to some cones across as condescending to others, some prefer blunt responses, while others value politeness, etc. You are never going to achieve perfection.

  20. Shellesbelles*

    I can so relate to this one. Please know that you’re not alone.

    I have pretty serious anxiety which manifests itself in avoidant/escapist coping mechanisms exactly like this! I take a simple email or request and then sit on it in panic until it becomes a much bigger deal than it has to be. Even being self aware about the issue hasn’t really made a huge difference. I’m a people pleaser, so if the answer has to be no or if there’s a complication, I become so afraid of disappointing the other person that I don’t respond. I also deal with brain fog, so sometimes that makes me forget about the request until much later. Then I panic and beat myself up over it, but I still find taking action impossible sometimes.

    Something I’m working on? It’s not just okay to say no, it’s absolutely necessary. And it needs to happen immediately. I would rather take on fewer tasks, but have them be done well, than take on too much just to please others. Also, because I deal with mental health issues, I need to make sure that I pencil in time to relax and take care of my health. If I overcommit, I risk making everything worse for myself.

  21. Pollygrammer*

    When I get an email that needs a (relatively) well-crafted or complicated response, I put a calendar reminder in for a day or two later. Then I’m not allowed to dismiss that reminder until I’ve actually gotten it done.

  22. Amber Rose*

    Soooo relatable. I am the WORST for this, largely due to anxiety. I get anxious about what to say, then fail to say anything, then get more anxious because time has passed.

    Some smaller, short term strategies that have helped me:
    – Calendar and/or phone reminders. “Talk to Wakeen about scheduling the meeting.” And then have my phone or email give me pop-ups. If I have reminders about what I specifically want to accomplish at 2:15pm, then I can just do them in order that I am reminded about them, as opposed to wasting emotional energy on deciding.

    – Never read an email more than twice. Once for content and once for typos/mistakes, and then it GOES whether I’m sure about it or not. Usually I can do this if I type it into Word or something, do the quick spell check, then cut/paste and send before I have time to think about it.

  23. Cruciatus*

    #3 on the bottom list is what I was going to say. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” Letting go of perfect has actually been pretty freeing for me. Most people just want whatever you can give them and I’m the only one who cares if it’s “perfect”. Yet I don’t expect perfection of others when I need information from them. Sometimes “good” is good enough and perfect is unattainable anyway. But good gets you started. Perfection keeps you waiting.

  24. ZuZu's Petals*

    I was telling a story recently about how when I started college, my grandmother mailed me $25. I didn’t send a thank you note, and for months, I would wake up in the middle of the night full of anxiety that I was a terrible person for not thanking my grandmother. Finally, probably four months later, I just sat down and wrote the thank you note, opening with an apology that it was obviously long overdue. My grandmother had of course completely forgotten about it, was thrilled to hear from me, and we actually exchanged letters through most of my time in college.

    Knowing how much better I felt after writing that note has been a huge help in my day to day life, because I am a terrible procrastinator, but just getting something sent is always the better option. If you have a list of people you need to get back to, maybe start with knocking out one of two low stakes responses – people you know will be understanding. The confidence boost from tackling these responses may make the more challenging ones seem easier.

    On a practical side, I also flag emails in Outlook that I know I NEED to respond to right away (in my case, external clients), because after a day, the font turns red and it freaks me out enough that I respond :)

      1. Not a Morning Person*

        I think it may be referring to the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Zuzu was the youngest daughter of George Bailey.

  25. Gloucesterina*

    You are not alone, OP. Thank you for asking this question, and to Alison for your amazing response!

  26. Else*

    Huh, I didn’t realize other people felt like this. It’s the weirdest type of pointless anxiety – I KNOW it’s unfounded, but it feels paralyzing. Alison’s suggestions are great – I do a number of those things to try to overcome this flaw in myself. The main thing I do is make sure I send out a “thinking about this; please follow up if you haven’t heard from me by (reasonable time)” so that I don’t actually let their question slip, or make them think I don’t care about it. I actually keep a draft of this so that I don’t have to fret about it, and then I add their email to my reminder tool so that it will bug me not to forget (todoist, currently). For the most part this works fine.

    On very rare occasions it runs into another personality flaw that I have – when I get someone who sends way too many followup queries way too fast when it’s a question that I really need to spend time on, I have to fight myself not to be so annoyed that I drop their thing down the priority list.

  27. Mouse*

    This 100% could have been written by me. I’m not so bad at work, because I know those emails really have to happen (and I’m still in the entry-level, “prove yourself” stage of my career, so I’m too afraid of messing up). My personal emails drive me crazy, though! The worst right now is wedding vendors we contacted for information and then decided not to hire. I end up ghosting them because I can’t figure out how to say “we can’t afford you” or “we liked someone else more”. I also get sooooo many store emails and junk that it gets overwhelming.
    A few things that help:
    1. I’m working on migrating those store emails and newsletters over to an account I don’t have to check as often.
    2. I ask my fiancé to sit down with me while I clear out my inbox, because I lack the motivation/composure to do it myself. It sounds silly, but he just sits next to me while he works on his own stuff to hold me accountable.
    3. I leave things “unread” until I deal with them. Those little numbers drive me nuts, so I’m more likely to take care of the email.
    4. Boomerang helps, too. I tend to feel motivated at, say, 1AM, but I don’t want to actually send emails then. Boomerang lets me write now, send later.

    1. Else*

      Hopefully this is helpful and not useless annoying advice – for those vendors, what I do is this a simple sentence:

      Thank you so much for your quotes/information/whatever, but we’ve decided not to move forward/to go with another choice/to hold off on deciding.

      Whichever of those is accurate. Or sometimes I just flat our say that my budget does not support this, and is there another option that will fit in x-range? Sometimes there is.

      In my experience, the majority of them will deal very well with this and then you can have a better relationship with them if you need to go back to them for something later, which you may. And if they don’t deal well with this and are pushy, block them and never hire them for anything.

      Anyway, when I was looking for quotes for things to buy, I kept a draft of this ready to go and just filled in the info when I was dealing with a new vendor and not one I knew well enough not to feel anxious about.

    2. Chloe Silverado*

      I work for a venue that hosts weddings! When planning a wedding, interactions with vendors feels especially personal because the event is so personal – you often end up sharing things like your proposal story or the story of how you met or even details about your family that you wouldn’t with say, a car salesman or a flooring contractor. Try to remember that while we genuinely love the personal interaction and want to make every couple’s big day special, we are a business just like any other! We recognize that what we have to offer won’t fit everyone’s taste and budget and some people will go in a different direction. The quicker you say no, the better – that allows us to focus on other clients/open the date up to others/etc. The only time you even need to provide a why is if you love the vendor but it’s over budget – they may be willing to work with you. Otherwise, you’re welcome to just say, “Thanks so much for your [help/ time/information/whatever]! We’ve decided to go a different route.” Nobody will take it personally and trust me, we’re used to it!

  28. TootsNYC*

    Maybe you should just make your default reply to requests for favors be “no.”Come up with a script that works in almost every situation: “I’d better say no–I don’t think I can take that on right now.”

    If something is appealing enough to you that it’s still tickling your fancy later that day or the next, you can almost always go back and say, “After all, I can.”

    (there’s a parable in the New Testament about a vineyard owner w/ two sons; he asks them to work in the vineyard, one says no, then goes later and works; the other says yes but doesn’t go. “Which one did the will of his father?” is the question.)

    Be the first guy. Say no right away. You can change your mind.

    1. fposte*

      I was a default no person for a long time and I found you often can’t change your mind later and that it can put a drag on your reputation to waffle. I would instead suggest a middle ground default that boils down to “I heard you–I can’t answer yet” (“Cool thought! I’ll look at my schedule and get back to you”). I think of those as “pre-emails”–they don’t count as real emails so don’t need to be drafted carefully, avoiding that anxiety, but they don’t commit you. That avoids the trap of the default yes, buys her time to make the decision, and means the answer is just a followup to her previous email so the email ice is broken already.

      1. boo*

        A genuine question on waffling: I tend to use your suggested strategy of “I’ll get back to you,” if I’m uncertain, but I don’t think I would judge someone who said “Sorry, I’d love to but I can’t,” then followed up a few days later with “Actually, it turns out I have a space in my schedule and I can after all!”? Even if the window had passed, I would take both statements at face value.

        Is the problem the reversal itself? Or doing it over and over among the same people? (I can see how a reputation “You never know if it’s her final answer” could be a problem.)

      2. Snark*

        My experience is, it’s really only perceived as waffling if yes is followed by no. If you say no, then follow up later going, “Actually, I have more availability than I thought, do you still need my help?” that is not viewed badly.

        1. boo*

          That’s my experience too, but I read fposte as saying that it can be a problem the other way around as well (going from no to yes), so I’m hoping for enlightenment!

          1. fposte*

            The problem for me is that a lot of the things I get asked about are group things or slotting in a person things, and therefore a “No” sometimes isn’t reversible and a late “Yes” sometimes makes you a drag on the group. I also think just always saying “No” gave me a bad rep even though I later did some of the things I said “No” to–it gave me a negative association.

            1. fposte*

              To be clear, I’m not saying a no is *never* reversible, just that I found it cost me as a knee-jerk response in a way that a “heard you, answer forthcoming” hasn’t.

              1. TootsNYC*

                then again, our OP is struggling with giving that forthcoming answer. So while I agree that the delay is a good idea, it seems that all it would do is give the OP the same anxiety, only later.

              2. boo*

                Ah, so it’s when the reversal gives someone more work! Makes sense. I was thinking of scenarios where it would be easy for someone to respond with, “Oh, we got someone for that, thanks anyway!” but if it’s a group thing I can see people feeling compelled to rearrange their plans to include the person who changed their mind.

                I also take your point about saying “No” so frequently giving a negative association. Thanks for clarifying!

  29. karou*

    I recently read a Buzzfeed article “I Tried Emailing Like A CEO And Quite Frankly, It Made My Life Better”. It’s really aimed towards helping tackle volume of email, but the advice about not being afraid to send short, quick replies to things may help deal with some of the emails you don’t know how to respond to.

    1. Berry*

      Yes, that article came to mind for me too when I first read the title of the letter. Maybe a bit of a difficult idea to put in practice (email convention can be so exhausting/stressful), but definitely a goal!

    2. NDC*

      Good one!

      This reminds me of a PhD Comics strip about the difference between how long senior academics take to write their emails vs how long students take. I’ll link in a reply, or you can also find it by searching for
      phd comic average time spent writing one e-mail

  30. Goosepimple*

    I have a related problem where I avoid responding to many emails, not because of perfectionist tendencies, but because I dread the inevitable reply and tedious follow-up email chain. Then, of course, I forget all about them and they never get answered. Does anyone know of an application where, once you have sent someone an email, it will block your receipt of emails from that particular individual for 24 hours…?

    1. Snark*

      Does it take the form of “and since we’re emailing, can we chat about Other Thing,” or is it “Okay, and so here’s something else I needed about Main Thing?”

      1. Goosepimple*

        It’s both, unfortunately. But mostly the latter–follow-up questions about the Main Thing.

        1. Snark*

          Woud it be just heinous to respond, “I’m sorry, but my availability for follow-on questions is pretty limited right now.”

          1. LilLamb*

            Seriously, I have this same problem. A lot of the time the people sending the email could have just included the other questions in the original query too. It’s like a bait and switch that sucks up soooo much time. You respond to a quick question, but then the person is like “while you’re responding to me, here’s 1,000 other questions I need answered.”

    2. Lil Fidget*

      Yes thank you!! I don’t relate as much to the anxiety aspect, but it’s more that every time I try to get something off my plate I can guarantee that it will boomerang right back with another question, or the endless scheduling dance, or whatever. Or yes in some cases people just want to chat :( I have one of those types of roles where people want to “network” with me.

      1. Snark*

        Ugh, the people who “just want to chat” bug me so hard. C’mon, people, we’re all buried in emails, we all don’t have enough hours in the day, don’t waste people’s time with empty chitchat.

      2. Goosepimple*

        YESSSS! I love being able to cross items off my daily list. But an email answered always just seems to trigger another email in reply, so it feels like those items are never actually off my plate! ARG!

    3. LBK*

      I guess I’m kinda confused on this; isn’t answering those follow up questions part of your job, too? Maybe I’m not correctly envisioning what those questions entail, but people having follow up questions on things I send them is pretty par for the course in my role. I would surely like to not have to reply to them sometimes but that would just be shirking my duties.

      1. Goosepimple*

        The worst emails are the personal and semi-professional (networking, career development, optional activities) ones. I’m actually much better at staying on top of emails directly related to my job. It’s not that I don’t dread the long follow-up email chains produced by necessary work emails–but I’m much better at answering them because I like remaining employed. However, I am very very guilty of quickly answering emails right before I leave for the day so that I don’t have to see follow-up email until the next morning.

      2. TootsNYC*

        yes, it’s part of the job–but it’s scattering.

        I think w/ colleagues I interacted with very often, I’d ask them to please start including ALL their questions in the first email, so that I could “dip in” to the issue once, thoroughly.

  31. Antilles*

    One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten: Bad news does not get better with time.
    Any time you’re providing negative news (even something as simple as “No, I don’t have the time/expertise to help with that”), you need to provide that as soon as possible. Why? Because it allows me to find alternatives – getting someone else involved, rearranging project workloads, asking the client for a delay in the overall schedule*, or something of the sort. If I don’t hear back, I might assume everything’s fine and then we really get in a pickle when two weeks from now you finally let me know “Hey, I can’t handle X” and we have to scramble like crazy to figure it out.
    *Side note: You’d be stunned at how often asking the client for extra time works – people often (wisely) build a bit of float in their schedules, so if you really need an extra day or week, you can often get that breathing room with no more than a simple phone call.

  32. Ramona Flowers*

    Most people would prefer a good-enough response to one that never arrives. Try to remember that the words often aren’t as important as the act of responding.

    1. TootsNYC*

      and that (though written words can hang around to be read later, unlike things we say) most people don’t focus that tightly on what you wrote anyway.

      THEY aren’t perfectionists.

  33. London Bookworm*

    I always love questions like this. Even if it’s not a problem I really struggle with, invariably the comments are filled with thoughtful suggestions and organizational techniques that are really valuable to read. Love to see what people are sharing.

  34. Tardis*

    I’ve definitely struggled with something similar! I had no problem telling people ‘no’; my anxiety had more to do with choosing the right words in my response, because I’m not good at reading between the lines of someone’s email and kept worrying that I was missing context–or that I was communicating something the wrong way.

    Now, I archive and label all emails as soon as I read/respond to them, and on Thursdays I spend an hour in the morning going through whatever is still left in my inbox, since that means I haven’t dealt with it yet. That time is pre-scheduled and set aside on my calendar. That way I clean out all of my unanswered emails on a weekly basis, and having the deadline helps. My spouse’s job involves communicating diplomatically, and on occasion I’ll ask for help in crafting a response that does the job.

    Good luck!

  35. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo*

    I think everyone does this kind of avoidance to a certain extent. I do it when I’m just really unsure of what I’m supposed to do… mostly it surrounds formal business letters or if I truly do not have an answer to give someone.

    The funny thing is once I tuck in and just get the thing done, I feel so much better. And on the flip-side things get so much worse when they aren’t addressed right away.

    I would say first things first… gather up all the existing correspondence that you have and just tackle it. Make a rule with yourself that you won’t cherry pick and just bulldoze your way through it. I would set a time limit on how far you go back maybe 2-3 months unless it’s something really important. I mention the time limit, because it would be a little weird to receive an email from someone for something longer back than that and would probably draw more attention to the fact that you never responded.

    Then I would set aside time to keep on track with the current stuff. Using the advice from AAM, start with a respond w/in 24 hours rule even if that response is “Hey, thanks for your email. I’m going to have to look in to this and will provide more information soon” or something that lets the person know that you’ve seen it and know it exists. Then you can move it into a tickler folder (either virtual or a written list) which you can then add a rule like final response w/in a week. I think the key is to not allow yourself to keep putting it off. Unfortunately you are going to have to figure out how to enforce that with yourself and for that there’s not an easy answer.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Yes to your first point, I have realized that often my procrastination comes because I really don’t understand the steps of how to approach something and I need more time to think about it (other times I’m just lazy – it can be hard to tell the two apart). Sometimes, I let something foment and then it just all comes to me, easy peasy, and if I had started plugging away it would have taken me hours. Or – common in my job – the task itself changes or goes away entirely. Sometimes procrastination has its place.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I call this “being rewarded for bad behavior.” It has happened to me SO often. I don’t ship a story to the printer before leaving for the day, because the press isn’t running for a week, and the morning will be early anyway, and the next morning the art department wants to change it.

        Or, last week I didn’t go mail the Christmas gift to my niece, and over the weekend I found out she has moved out and is getting a divorce, so anything I mail to her there might get stolen or trashed.

    2. TootsNYC*

      “I do it when I’m just really unsure of what I’m supposed to do”

      I have discovered that this lack of certainty is the number one reason behind any procrastination.
      Of any kind.

      It has helped me SO much to know this.
      Because then I can stop focusing on the procrastination (or my personal failings) and instead focus on WHY I’m not certain, WHY I’m unsure. And then I go try to fix that (either w/ more info, or by giving myself permission to say no, or whatever)

      1. boo*

        “…this lack of certainty is the number one reason behind my procrastination.”

        Oh gosh, yes. Realizing this changed my life! (See also: the number one reason for my messiness is not being sure where to put things. Storage bins of all sizes did wonders…)

    1. Amber Rose*

      I’ve seen it on the Friday open thread a few times. Someone will post “Tell us what you’ve been putting off, go do the thing and report back” and weirdly, that sense of community in dealing with things and the accountability to strangers who really have zero reason to get mad at you is pretty comforting.

      Maybe we should have a separate support group. =P

    2. TootsNYC*

      I had a “haunting” going on w/ a couple of organizing-the-home forum members about clearing off the dining room table. I used to get back out of bed to do that, because I knew they’d be clearing theirs too. And we’d touch base in the morning, so I wanted to be able to say I’d done it.

  36. A Beth*

    This is really great timing and an issue I definitely struggle with myself. Just tackled one of these emails sitting in my drafts thanks to this post.

  37. RJGM*

    This is such great advice (as always)! I’ll definitely be using these techniques. The letter also reminded me to reply to my grandma’s email that’s been waiting for a week… this anxiety for me manifests as writing the email in my head a thousand times a day, but never actually sitting down and typing it. I might need to introduce “guilt hour” at my office too :)

  38. KJDubreuil*

    You know that motto : Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well?

    DUMP THAT MOTTO and use mine instead:

    Whatever is worth doing is worth getting done!

    I have lived by this motto ever since I was a 17 year old babysitter and saw this motto in awesome action. I arrived at the babysitting job and the mom was boxing up something she has ordered to return to the sender. As I watched in awe she grabbed a lipstick and wrote in big block letters on the packing slip/invoice “DO NOT WANT WRONG COLOR.” She shoved that in the box and was done. Now I was being raised by a lawyer and an executive secretary. I thought any return would require a carefully crafted business letter typed in triplicate, copy retained for my files and cc to the corporate headquarters of the manufacturer. I would have spent so much time trying to find the corporate mailing address that the wrong color item would have languished in my closet for a year, to eventually be gifted to some poor unfortunate recipient with the tags and receipt removed.

    Remember the motto: Anything worth doing is worth getting done!

    1. Catarina*

      …I may or may not have a box of ill-fitting Land’s End shirts in my office that I need to return. Since 2015. They have a very liberal return policy.

      *shamed face*

    2. LBK*

      I love every single bit of this and I may add a inspirational “whatever is worth doing is worth getting done” Post-It on my desk next to the one that says “control is good, trust is better”.

    3. Tomato Frog*

      My mom says this exact thing. She has two smart perfectionist daughters with ADHD. A major thing for them was learning that, in school, handing in a mediocre, half-assed paper is better than handing in nothing. A 60% is better than a 0%! Do what it takes to get your damn degree and get out of there.

      1. Elsajeni*

        My dad’s line to me, and to various perfectionist students, nephews, etc. over the years, is “C stands for COMPLETE. D stands for DEGREE.”

    4. All Hail Queen Sally*

      I love this motto so much that I am thinking of embroidering and framing it! I shall keep it in mind for the rest of my life.

  39. CM*

    I used to have this same problem and I’m so much happier now, even though it felt really uncomfortable to change my habits!

    Try responding to everything immediately with either a “yes,” “no,” “thanks,” or “I got your message.” Sometimes the latter is enough: “Thanks for telling me! I’ll let you know if I’m interested.”

    I also used the idea of developing standard responses that MissDisplaced mentioned above, although I didn’t actually write them down in a document. Basically, have one-sentence responses you can dash off.

    After you hit send, take a deep breath and stop thinking about it! DO NOT worry about how the person will feel when getting this email. Just move on! This was the biggest thing for me. Respond immediately and then put it out of your mind.

    Finally, for many of the interactions you’re talking about, these are pretty loose relationships that can survive long delays. If you wait a year and then email your contacts saying, “By the way, I switched jobs!” or “Sorry I never got back to you, but how are you doing?” that is totally fine. Imagine how you would feel getting this email months or a year later in a similar situation. You’d probably think, “Oh great, Wakeen got back in touch,” and wouldn’t really care about how long it took.

    1. CM*

      (I JUST responded to an email where as I was typing, I thought, “This is going to sound dumb, I’m not using the right phrase here,” but then I remember to take my own advice and just hit send. She’ll know what I mean!)

    2. TootsNYC*

      yeah, in a lot of these situations, you don’t even need to spend much energy apologizing.

  40. Myrin*

    What an excellent and interesting question! For some reason, I’ve really enjoyed reading this, even though it isn’t really a problem I have, but I find it and all the responses extremely fascinating with a lot of tips I can use anyway!

  41. Kelsi*

    This is just an idea for when someone asks for contacts/leads/ideas:

    Instead of saying “sure, I’ll see what I can dig up!” say “I don’t know of anything/anyone off the top of my head, but if I see anything/anyone that might be a good fit I’ll let you know!”

    A. With that phrasing, they aren’t expecting you to DEFINITELY get back to them, only if you have something for them. If you never get back to them, no guilt…it can just be assumed that nothing came to you.
    B. If a contact/lead/idea DOES come up, you can send it to them without worrying about explaining why you’re not sending a whole list, or making lots of excuses about how long it’s taken. Just a simple “met John this weekend at a networking event and he seemed interested in your project/had relevant experience, here are his contact details!” or “I heard this company is starting an artist grant program, here’s a link to the application!”

    1. Lil Fidget*

      Yes! I love “will let you know.” It’s the email equivalent of “don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

  42. Just another voice in the echo chamber*

    I do this as well, to a lesser extent. One thing that helps me, especially with those emails when I’m trying to be careful about phrasing or where I’m not sure if I should commit to something, is writing out a response immediately and saving it to my drafts folder. I then designate a time to look at it later in the day or next day. By doing that I’ve given my brain some time to work out the phrasing, or mull over the opportunity, or whatever. I sometimes wind up changing quite a bit of the email, sometimes I just make small edits, or send it exactly as originally written. But it does help lessen the anxiety of the “perfect” response or the “should I jump into this project?” doubts. I do commit to sending the email after I’ve revised it though – otherwise the revision cycle could go on forever!

    As a larger response to the problem of perfectionism – “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” I tell myself this all the time and have found it enormously helpful.

    Good luck LW!

  43. nnn*

    A piece of advice I’ve found useful for struggling to say no in social contexts: for a period of time (a week, a month, whatever makes sense in your life) say no to everything. Then see what you regret not having said yes to.

    This is more difficult in work contexts, but perhaps it could be adapted – e.g. maybe say no to everything that isn’t strictly your job? Or maybe imagine saying no and see how you feel about that, and then, if you say yes, revisit after the thing is complete and see how you feel about having said yes.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I like this! Above, I suggested just defaulting to no, on the theory that a lot of times, you can say yes later.

      But of course, sometimes you can.

      So defaulting to no for a trial, “evidence-gathering” period might really help you train yourself to identify the things you should ALWAYS say no to, which you should ALWAYS say yes to, and those that fall in the middle an dneed more thought.

  44. Noah*

    There’s another critical thing you can do here:

    Don’t do things that you don’t have to do if they cause you this much anxiety. Does sending a congratulations note for X Event stress you out? Y’know what: your friends almost certainly don’t expect such a note. So instead of worrying about the note, just decide not to do it.

    Obviously, this has to be practiced with caution, but it can even be used for some things at work. I’m not worried about OP overdoing it with this kind of advice, but if you’re really lazy it can be a killer. But if you’re not, it’s amazing and freeing.

  45. Nita*

    You’re definitely not alone! I’ve been battling this habit for years, and a couple of tips that sort of help…

    Let’s say you have to tell your contact something that will disappoint them, like that fact that you won’t be joining their team, or cannot find funding for their project, or they’re the client and your project has gone over budget. Telling them this is not going to get easier if you delay, and they might actually appreciate having a heads-up sooner rather than later. Of course not responding also conveys the message that you can’t help them, but in a much less nice way. I find it helps to set aside some time to think about framing the answer – but no longer than a day or two, unless I’m dealing with a flaming emergency on another project.

    If you want to respond with an update but the update won’t be coming for a month or two, or don’t know what answer to give, find a good non-committal answer you can use. Something like “I will review and reach out to you if I need further information” or “I need to look into this and will get back to you” or “this project will not be finished for several months, but let’s touch base when it’s closer to completion.”

  46. Hello...ello...ello..ello..llo..llo..lo*

    So here’s something that nobody has mentioned. Are you conflating emails that need a response with emails that don’t? Beware this is not an excuse to enable bad email behavior so use with caution. Are you spending the same energy on emails that absolutely need a long or detailed response with ones that don’t need any or even a short one?

    The example you gave about the contacts when you left a job. It sounds to me that you let the critical people know but I’m not sure why your other contacts would need a notification. Or the good news email, I can’t honestly think of a situation where a good news email needs to be sent. Sure it may be nice to send one, but if I didn’t I can’t say I’d give it another thought. It sounds like you are in a position to receive unsolicited emails; funding and internship requests. In some of those cases I think it’s ok not to respond or if you do to provide canned responses.

    Another example is the responder up thread who mentioned their personal email and responding to vendor quotes that they aren’t going to use. I would not respond to those. The vendors are not waiting by their email in anticipation of a response. Most people only respond if they decide to use the service, and quite frankly it’s wasting their time to have to read the ‘sorry no’ replies.

    Also I’m going to ask if you are taking on replies that should come from others. For example you’d likely have a very broad role if you are in charge of funding decisions and intern hires. Should you be referring those emails to others?

    1. Snark*

      “Most people only respond if they decide to use the service, and quite frankly it’s wasting their time to have to read the ‘sorry no’ replies.”

      Yup. Vendors cold-emailing do not need a response, and frankly, I think many noncritical good news and congrats emails could be skipped too.

  47. Annie Moose*

    Something that helps me is writing a “bad” draft first, something I have no intention of sending, that just has the main bullet points I want to hit or wording I intend to clean up later. Then I’d have a reminder at the end of the day to check all of my drafts, and it turned out that half of them, the wording was actually just fine. And I had a rule that I had to send everything in my drafts folder at the end of the day. (unless it was something where I legitimately didn’t have the information I needed yet)

    When I sat and deliberated over wording, I’d get all anxious about the precise nuances of each word, but when I let it sit for awhile and came back later, I’d realize there wasn’t anything wrong with the wording. (or I’d realize that I didn’t really mean what I said, and I’d change it then and there) Allowing myself to not worry about getting the wording perfect the first time helped a lot.

    1. R2D2*

      I’m also a fan of drafting an email, setting it aside, and revisiting an hour or two later. Often I end up deleting half the draft for a more concise message!

  48. Lucky P.*

    When I’m having trouble figuring out how to word an email, I type “but what I really want to say is” and then just write it. 90% of the time, that simple straightforward message ends up being good enough to send as-is (I go back and erase my helper phrase, of course!) And if it still needs reworded, at least I have the kernel of exactly what I’m trying to express to use as a guide.

    1. BRR*

      I like this! I do something similar where I will explain something out loud if I can’t figure out the wording.

    2. Natalie*

      The first draft of my senior thesis had so many paragraphs that began with “In this paragraph we’ll write something about how SourceDocA relates to ConceptB. Use this somewhere: [sentence fragment I thought of in the shower]…” and then it would actually segue into a real paragraph. At the end I just had to clean up the beginning parts.

      1. Lucky P.*

        I’m from Pittsburgh! Totally a regional thing. (Don’t get me started on gum-bands or washrags.)

    3. TootsNYC*

      That reminds me of advice I used to give beginning newswriters and feature writers who were writing for the college publication I worked on.

      If you’re stuck, don’t write the lead; start about 1/3 of the way down.

  49. Serin*

    Have you seen this great cartoon about saying “Thank you” instead of “I’m sorry”?


    It was very helpful to me when I sat down to write a bunch of personal emails that all seemed to start the same way — “I’m so very sorry that I didn’t get back to you sooner, but life.” It’s a lot more fun to be able to say, “Thank you for putting so much effort into staying in touch.”

    (Also, I love the tip about not saying yes to anything unless it could go on the calendar to get done in the next week. Follow-through and over-promising are problems for me, so I’ve written that down to work on this year.)

  50. mf*

    I’m exactly like you, LW. I’ve had this same problem for ages. The one thing that works for me is to answer these sorts of messages (the ones I want to avoid answering) immediately. The longer I wait, the more difficult it is for me to reply. Sometimes I actually to myself *outloud*: you need to answer this email TODAY.

  51. NK*

    I struggle with this too. I had a big wake-up call recently; I had two cards I wanted to send, one for a sick friend and another for a friend going through a tough time. I thought a hand-written card wold be nicer than email. I hadn’t gotten around to going to the store to get the cards, and then my sick friend passed away – her illness was more advanced than we realized. I wish I would have just sent her an email. So that’s what I did with the second friend. I told her I had wanted to send a card, but an email was better than a card that doesn’t get sent. In the end, she got the message, and that’s what matters. Not to say you shouldn’t always make the extra effort, but be realistic about what you can do and don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

    1. R2D2*

      So sorry for your loss, NK. Even though you didn’t send the card, I’m sure your friends knew how much you cared about her.

  52. Flower*

    You’re definitely not alone. While this might not work for you and might not work in all situations, my best strategy has always been to get someone to quickly proofread emails I’m nervous about getting right. That can be my partner, a close friend (there are one or two who I’ve done that with), my mother… Then I know that one other person has checked if it’s good enough and maybe made the changes necessary to make it good enough.

    1. Flower*

      As a side note, I have proofread emails and messages for most of the people who have proofread for me – it’s a useful cohort!

  53. Anonemailer*

    I would also add, to this excellent discussion, that no explanation is necessary with a late response. I find that people often preface “overdue” emails with well-meaning but unnecessary excuses – better to just say “I apologize for the long delay in getting back to you” and move on with the actual reply.

    1. Argh!*

      …unless that response is to my boss, who never gives a deadline and then reams you out if you happen to be the last one to reply.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I agree w/ keeping apologies short. and sometimes nonexistent.

      I get it; people get busy, we forget, yadda yadda. Just say, “Sorry to be so late,” and then let’s get on with it.

      My brother the Army noncom says, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry; fix it.” He says, talking about how sorry you are is diverting energy from the solution. And I don’t care about your guilt, I just want the end result.

  54. LBG*

    Emails that require a lot of work – sit for a while. Emails that I can answer quickly get knocked out. Even if they are lower priority, which can be an issue.
    Although I have one co-worker who emails me extremely long dissertation-type emails, with numerous attachments. Since I run our internal community of practice, I assume he wants me to post something. I have just taken to writing him back and asking for a quick summary if he wants me to post something. He never responds, which means I don’t have to read his ramblings but he knows it was on him to digest it. The only person who gets to forward me random things for posting without condensing them is my boss :)

    1. Competent Commenter*

      Seconded. I have so many coworkers who can’t write an email that makes sense, so I spend way too much time parsing what it is they want so I can reply, or trying to frame a polite WTF? response. Emails that don’t make sense or don’t have a clear subject line just languish in my inbox. Sorry folks. Put in some effort on your side if you want a quicker answer.

  55. Arjay*

    I decided sometime in November to quit a volunteer gig that I no longer enjoy. I didn’t know exactly what to say though, or how much detail to go into about my reasons, so I didn’t say anything. They put me on the schedule for December, and I didn’t say anything. They put me on the schedule for January, and I didn’t say anything. (Fortunately, it’s not a time consuming gig for me.) I still didn’t know what to say, but I finally responded to say that I didn’t want to be scheduled for February or March. Not even close to perfect, but I said something to move me closer to where I want to be.

  56. peachie*

    OP, you are not alone. I do this all the time. I’m getting better, though!

    Reading this, I realized I whole bunch of typical responses I use in these situations–I want to hear everyone else’s! Mine:

    If I’m returning an email late…
    “I’m so sorry for missing this. To address your question…”

    If yI’m returning an email late and don’t have time/am overwhelmed by answering it in full…
    “I’m so sorry I lost track of your message–I am working on this now, and will have [an answer/a response/the project] to you by [date/the end of the day].”

    If I don’t know how to answer a question…
    “I’m happy to help. I want to make sure I’m giving you an accurate answer, so…”
    (a) “…could you [clarify what you’re asking]/[provide additional information]?”
    (b) “…I’m going to follow up with [department]; I’ll get back to you by tomorrow afternoon.”

    If the answer is no (externally)…
    “Unfortunately, we [don’t have that information/don’t offer that service/can’t offer a discount, etc.] I apologize for any inconvenience. If there’s anything else I can assist with, please let me know.”
    Bonus response!
    “To clarify, you may refer to [our cancellation policy, etc.] at [link].”

    If the answer is no (internally)…
    “I [would be happy to/wish I could], but unfortunately, [I don’t have the time/resources/ability], but…”
    (a) “…if you reach out to [department], they may be able to provide the information you need.”
    (b) “…in the future I would be happy to help with a project like this.”

    1. peachie*

      Also! Some general things that I’ve learned or that have helped:

      * Learn to be comfortable with short answers. It’s so easy to shame spiral, especially when the request requires a long answer, but it’s usually better to send a quick note with a “I’ll get an answer back by [date]” or “I’m working on this; can I email you later today?” than to save your message until everything is totally done.

      * In late responses, it’s often good to outline a plan. If it’s a simple project/request, say when it will be done by. If it’s more complicated, you can give a brief update (e.g., “I’ve been in contact with all the speakers for the conference, and I’m now working to finalize their contracts. I have a few schedule adjustments to make to the agenda–can I send you the draft tomorrow afternoon?”).

      * Use the delay delivery function! (This is in Outlook, but I bet there’s something similar for other mail platforms.) I use this all the time for future projects/deadlines. If I get an email and think, “Hm, I can’t/don’t want to do that right now,” I immediately forward it to myself set to deliver on the day I can actually do it.

      * Remember that if someone really needs a response, they will get back in touch. They may not be happy about it, but they will definitely let you know.

    2. CM*

      Here are mine — they’re not as nice as yours!

      If I’m returning an email late…
      No script, just answer the question — or if it was something that was time-sensitive, I might say, “I’m weighing in late, but if it’s still useful…”

      If I’m returning an email late and don’t have time/am overwhelmed by answering it in full…
      “I’ll follow up with more details, but my initial thoughts are…”

      If I don’t know how to answer a question…
      “I need some more information to answer this question. Can you tell me X, Y, and Z?” or
      “I don’t think I can answer this. I would suggest contacting ___.”

      If the answer is no (externally)…
      “No” or “That is not acceptable” (I’m a lawyer) or no response if I get an unsolicited external request.

      If the answer is no (internally)…
      Follow up with questions / explanation, depending on the situation. Could be, “We’ve decided not to take that approach because […]” or “Please follow the process, you can find it here–>” or “I’d prefer to do Y instead because […]. What do you think?”

    1. Ghost Town*

      I said this so many time to my advisees over the years. Get the essay written and defended. Get your diploma. You can always do more research and polishing later if you want.

  57. drpuma*

    An opener I’ve successfully used with friends is, “I wrote you an email in my head but I’m not sure if I sent it in real life.” 99% of the time the response I get back is “I do that all the time too!”

    Also lately I seem to do most of my non-work emailing on my phone. So for complicated or difficult messages, I’ll draft them in my notes app before copy-pasting into my actual email. That way I feel like I have a little more breathing room to respond.

    Good luck and please do send in an update! I believe you can make this change, and I know lots of other commenters are rooting for you as well!

  58. Dotty*

    Wow, this is awesome detailed advice – thank you Alison!! I’ve saved this to my desktop as a constant reminder at work.

    OP, I’ve definitely struggled with this in the past (and still do struggle with this at times!) so you’re by no means alone. I’ve now learned to focus on a late reply with an apology is always better than no reply but I’m constantly trying to get better at replying and I have a scheduled hour every day. Giving myself a fixed timeframe to work on emails also helps me focus on getting a response written rather than having an indefinite amount of time where you can deliberate and over-think a response.

  59. Regulated AAMer*

    I’m glad I work in a regulated industry that has legal deadlines and time sensitive matters. This would never be an issue. If someone wasn’t responding to emails they would not last long and their professional license could be in jeopardy.

  60. Argh!*

    A recent article I saw via google news said that millenials have a huge problem with perfectionism. Why is that? Why should anyone worry about writing the “right thing” when there are many right things and most people are very forgiving about written communication?

    1. Snark*

      That avocado toast isn’t going to Instagram itself, honey.

      Snarking aside, I would look very, very askance at such a generalization about a gigantic group of people.

      1. Natalie*

        I mean, an actual study is a bit different than “young people use curse words!” handwringing. There are real reasons for one generation to have different tendencies than another – consider the scrimping of the generation that came of age during the Great Depression, for example. The key is that those are tendencies and trends, not prophecies and certainly not harbingers of doom for the future.

  61. J*

    I was covering my own work, plus the work of 3 other employees who left, from June- December. I had to triage and only deal with emergencies for several months. I had been feeling terrible about one email in particular from October that I never replied to. It was from an outside vendor who does some pro bono work for us, who was asking about paid work. I didn’t have the time to coordinate scheduling the paid work when he emailed, and the longer I put off responding, the harder it was to just reply “I’m sorry we don’t have time to schedule this right now.”

    Reading this column gave me the push I needed to email him back. I apologized for not keeping up with emails, and explained a timetable where we would hire him in the spring. I feel so much better!

  62. Yasmin*

    This is very culture-specific and may not be a given in non-US contexts—including when a U.S. company/org has dealings with international counterparts (or even when a US-based one is owned/run by a family or org entrenched in such ethnic communities. In plenty of cultures, it’s the norm not to say no. You respond in the positive or affirmative, and the other side knows it may not happen, and definitely doesn’t expect that it will. This can be frustrating for Americans, but it’s worth noting and understanding as a common reality in much of the world.

  63. Ruby Red Tulips*

    So LW, I am going preface this by saying, if this does not sound like you, please feel free to absolutely ignore me.

    However, your question sounds like a symptom of a greater (perceived) problem — laziness. I am definitely not calling you lazy; rather, this seems to be less about replying to emails in a timely manner, and more about guilt for not being “enough” — not having enough time, enough capacity, enough interest, in all these people who are interested in you. I only mention this because I read an Ask Polly column recently that really struck me hard, titled, “Why Am I So Lazy?” — https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/ask-polly-why-am-i-so-lazy.html

    The punchline is, we’re not lazy. We’re scared of letting other people down, and what they think of us when we do, and how they might judge us for using our time in xyz ways that we want versus the abc ways they want, and if we fail and the time we spend is wasted, etc.

    I could be projecting here. But the subtext of your letter resonated with me, and reminded me of this article, and so I am sharing it with you, in case it helps. Best of luck.

  64. LC*

    OP, I used to be the same way. People told me all the time that “done is better than perfect,” but my inner perfectionist never found that particularly compelling. What DID help was reframing what “perfect” even meant. For an email that just needs a response, success is just responding. Nothing more. It’s not finding the perfect prose, or answering every question they may possibly have. It’s just momentum, just keeping the chain going.

  65. NeverGoingToFindAHome*

    I could have written this letter. As so many others have commented, you are not alone OP! I’m new in my career and I know this is a terrible habit, so I’m trying to break it as quick as possible, because I don’t want to be seen as an unreliable person. But it’s SO HARD. So be kind to yourself, OP, and know that your emails won’t always be perfect, and sometimes your timing still won’t be perfect. But that’s okay. And people understand.

  66. Competent Commenter*

    Emails are the bane of my existence personally and professionally. I am so over email. I have anxiety and ADHD and even though both are now pretty well controlled with medication, emails can still be a big trigger. If an email isn’t clear, or wants me to make a decision that makes me anxious like committing to an outing or meeting, or takes more action than I can do at that moment, then I find myself closing it right back up. I’m actually very motivated to keep my inboxes as empty as possible, because I find having a lot of messages very visually confusing, so I leave items waiting to be done marked as unread, I file everything as I finish them, etc. But there are always a subset that I can’t deal with on time and they cause me so much anxiety.

    The other thing that’s difficult is that I feel like I can either manage my inbox or manage the rest of my work, because I’m doing a three-person job by myself, and my work ranges from being a public point of contact to admin level work to execution of projects such as writing to project management to direction of unit-wide initiatives. So I bounce back and forth between responding to emails (while not getting big projects done) to working on my projects (while not responding to emails so they’re stacking up). I don’t even mind spend a couple of hours emptying my inbox, but then I’m not meeting my other goals, and my boss isn’t going to say, “It’s so great that your inbox is empty and you’ve dealt with those requests from those other units and that weird guy in Brazil and followed up on that order…” So this tug between work and email plus my natural anxiety makes things so stressful, even though I have a ton of coping techniques. I really hate it. And then I get home and the last thing I want to do is reply to personal emails from friends. Sorry, friends.

    I celebrate and am immersed in technology and digital communication advances. But when I started my career thirty years ago, we didn’t have email, and the only thing I had to avoid at work was a handful of voicemail messages left on our office machine, and you know what? That didn’t suck like this sucks. This sucks.

  67. PurpleCow*

    I hear you, LW! If this helps at all, here’s my personal method: I answer uncomfortable or awkward emails in the last 10 minutes of my workday. I’m not allowed to leave until I send those emails, but I also find that it’s easier for me to do something scary or awkward when I can immediately “run away” afterward and ignore it for awhile. By the time I come back in the next morning or the next Monday, my anxiety about “did I say the right thing?” has lifted a little bit and I’m ready to keep going.

    1. Competent Commenter*

      That’s a great technique, PurpleCow! It would be good for people with ADHD too as we’re more motivated by that kind of pressure than by prioritization. Nice tip.

    2. Elsajeni*

      I also like to “run away” right after sending emails — I’m usually dealing with a batch of emails at a time, so my method is to draft them all, save the drafts, and then go through my drafts folder right before leaving for lunch and send everything!

  68. Susan K*

    As someone whose e-mails regularly get ignored, I totally agree with Alison that a late response is better than none, and a “no” upfront is better than waiting and waiting for a response. I honestly get a little excited when someone actually replies to one of my e-mails relatively quickly without me having to follow up multiple times. I even have a positive reaction when someone replies a long time later. It sucks to feel like I’m being ignored, so just getting a response, even a late response, makes me realize, “Ok, this person wasn’t ignoring me; she was just busy and my message slipped through the cracks, but at least she cared enough to follow up.”

    1. Argh!*

      My boss replies to emails from some people and not others, and some of my emails and not the more important ones, even time-sensitive ones. Not receiving a reply from your boss is like a “You don’t matter” message. I know it’s because she’s a micromanager and makes all of us ask permission for almost everything, which clutters up her mailbox, but that doesn’t make it feel better.

      At one point I kept a running list of unresponded emails to ask her about in our one-on-ones (assuming they weren’t cancelled and then not rescheduled). Usually she didn’t remember them and asked me to re-send, which I sometimes had to do a few times in order to get a meaningful reply.

      It’s aggravating, so I’m a big apologizer when I delay in responding because I know I hate waiting for an answer. I do feel that the person needs to be acknowledged somehow.

  69. Kat B.*

    I so, so love David Cain’s advice on the Raptitude blog on this very subject – he has a number of posts with some really wonderful, incisive observations about his own crazy procrastination habits, along with some practical advice and a log of his 30-day project/experiment endeavoring to tackle it.

    Ultimately, the one which has stuck with me through my own struggles is this: “The sooner you do something, to more of your life you get to live having done it.” If you can train yourself, whenever your inbox dings, to ask yourself “How long am I willing to live with this outstanding email in my life?” (instead of “What’s the ideal response to this email?” or “Do I really want to make it awkward by saying something they don’t want to hear?”), the decision gets a lot clearer.

    I’d advise starting here: http://www.raptitude.com/2015/03/how-to-get-yourself-to-do-things/

  70. I'll say it*

    I just want to mention something that came to me as I read the original letter: if the OP has other areas of their life where they find this is happening, it is worth talking to your doctor or a therapist. These kinds of things can be symptoms of an anxiety disorder that may not get better even with all the best advice about how to do this one thing well. If this is something you find in other areas of your life, talk to someone you trust. This letter reminded me so much of myself, as did a lot of the comments about people having anxiety over opening physical mail. That anxiety landed me in a hospital…so it might not be as easy as “just try these simple email tips!” Hopefully it *is* just this one area and you can handle it. But if not, don’t beat yourself up over not being able to take advice and use it – talk to someone who might be able to help you.

  71. Mad Baggins*

    It is so freeing to say “no” to things! Something that has helped me is noting how fictional characters in media say “no”. For instance, in the Office nobody ever speaks up and gets stuck in lingering, awful(ly hilarious) situations, whereas in Brooklyn 99 people come across as a bit awkward or blunt, but almost always their message is clearly received, nobody’s feelings are really hurt, the relationship and the world keeps on chugging–AND nobody has to do a thing they didn’t want to do!

  72. LizD (OP)*

    OP here – I woke up to this and was blown away. Just quickly (!), thank you SO MUCH to Alison and all of the amazing commenters for your compassionate, hilarious responses and practical tips. It helps enormously to know that I’m not alone and to hear what actions and thoughts others have found useful. I’m going to give so many of these a try and will update. More grateful than i can say and so glad to know that others also can benefit from this post. Thank you Alison and team AAM for taking the time to help me to start the year off well, and for demonstrating (yet again) how kind and thoughtful people can be!

  73. Lilianne*

    I feel you so much!
    What works for me – I found that daily e-mail response sessions that Alison has suggested don’t work because I really need more than 10-20 minutes to get into the “I am sending this” mode and having them every day is just something I dread, but I flag all the “problematic“ e-mails evert day and go back to them once in a week or two where I make my tea, sit back and have a dedicated, relaxed delayed e-mail response hour. It feels really good at the end of the hour as well:)

  74. Q.*

    Alison’s advice is spot on, as per usual, so I just want to say you are 100% not alone on this. I have always been uncomfortable saying ‘no’ to people, and so I avoid answering emails, texts, etc. that ask me for things I want to say no to (not at work, but same concept) and of course, then I feel even more guilty and worry it’s too late to say anything. It’s always better to rip the band aid off, so to speak. Good luck!

  75. chas*

    I never comment here, but this question is very relevant to my life. I have social anxiety disorder, and I have a very severe form of this email avoidance.

    Here are some things that help me deal with it:

    1. I practice conscious, radical self-acceptance and forgiveness; that is, I actively forgive myself every day for the things I’ve done, am doing, and am going to do. This is particularly effective for perfectionism, and by extension, email tardiness. It took me about a year of actively employing this strategy as a mental or verbal repetition (i.e. thinking or saying forgiveness statements to myself) before I actually believed what I was saying, so give this one some time.

    2. I stopped apologizing in emails that were less than two weeks late. Anything more than two weeks late, I give a general “Sorry for the late reply,” with no follow-up excuses. That helps calm my anxiety down and get me answering emails faster, because I don’t have to explain myself before actually responding to the message, which would just make me panic and avoid it harder. Also, people don’t really care about your reasons, most of the time. Especially people who don’t interact with you on a daily basis.

    3. I accept that this is a cyclical event for me. I tend to go through long periods where email is totally fine for me, and then I’ll look up from my work and realize I’ve been putting off responding to anything for several days. (I’m a freelance technician, so I don’t sit in an office, ever, which can make email even harder to get back to.) Anxiety and mood disorders often have recurring patterns – there’s a fairly predictable swing of “good” and “bad” times, and knowing that can allow me to either cut myself some slack (if it’s only been 24 hours) or kick myself into gear (if it’s getting into five or more days). Also, during the bad times, it helps to know that the good times will come again, and it won’t be like this forever.

    4. When I was going through some more severely anxious periods, I cultivated family and friends who would be willing to help me. That could be something like meeting for a working coffee/lunch and both working on things we were putting off (resumes, invoicing, writing a dating site profile, whatever). Recently, I pawned off an email chain with a hostel to my mother, my travelling companion, so that I could use my energy to catch up with my work email while she planned that part of the vacation. Basically, use the people around you. They’re often more than willing to help.

    5. If your email aversion is or becomes more severe, it’s worth considering if changing your job or even career would help you, in the long term. I certainly sought out work that is mostly accomplished in person, not as a way to give in to my anxiety, but as an investment in the kind of person I am, and the kind of life that will not force me to perform daily tasks that create excessive stress for me. That may not be possible for you, but it’s worth considering.

    6. Finally, be aware of treatment options. Anxiety that negatively impacts your life regularly and creates dysfunction is clinical anxiety, and many kinds of therapies and medications exist to treat it. I went with therapy for many years, then I was free from therapy and medication, and now I’m on medication to get some things under control. I’m not necessarily recommending these things to you –
    they may or may not make sense for your life – but you should be aware of the possibility. As I always tell my friends, whatever decisions you make regarding therapy and medication are the right ones, because they are the decisions you’re making right now.

    Good luck! The struggle is real, but it can get better. I’m rooting for you!

  76. Anxa*

    The way this manifests in my personal life is I’ll want to send a card to someone I haven’t spoken with in a while, but I feel weird about it so I wait for the next, occassion. Then I forget. Then it comes up again. Like right now it’s too late for Christmas cards, too late for New Year’s, so now I’m thinking “I’ll send them a (platonic) Valentine’s Day card.”

    It makes no sense. I don’t know why I do this.

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