The Reply Button Is There For A Reason: Email Efficiency Is Important

Graphic by Hime

The following is a guest post by Hime, one of Financial Samurai's first readers.  Hime is a manager at a strategy consultant firm who likes the violin and going on unplanned adventures.  Hope you enjoy!

All right everyone, how many times have you read an email and said to yourself “I don’t feel like replying now I’ll just do it later” only to have that email disappear into the deep abyss and completely forget that you left the sender hanging?

Come on, I know you’ve done that at least once.  If you do that more like every third email – CLUNK!  That is me hitting you over the head with an oversized rubber hammer as I resist the urge to shake the stubbornness out of you.  Think I’m overreacting?  Maybe a little but I am trying to save your career and relationships so please pay attention!


I’m generally fast and consistent about replying to emails right away (24 hours at the latest), especially to friends, family, clients, and the coworkers that I like…whoops I mean all my coworkers.  However one time last year I goofed up big time….

I have a difficult client that is notorious for being very impatient and demanding, often with requests that my firm can’t accommodate due to breach of contract or financial limitations.  One day I got a terse email from him complaining about a project my team generated late.  He was in denial that the reason the report was late stemmed from his team giving us incomplete data that we had to chase down from them on multiple occasions.

I was so irritated that he was blaming us for their incompetence that I let the email fester in my inbox while I moved on to other things.  He didn’t deserve any more of time!  Boy was I stupid.  What I didn’t realize was that because my client was upset (justified or not), he ended up becoming furious that I ignored his email, and he ended up calling my boss’s boss to chew him out about my insolence.

Ouch.  All of a sudden I became the idiot for not handling the situation and having to bow my head to the man who signs my paycheck.  Whoops!

Even though we all receive 100s of emails a day, it is crucial to actively watch for emails that are addressed to you specifically or to your team.  There will be times when a client may be lashing out for something that wasn’t your fault but it’s your responsibility to explain that to him/her in a timely manner whether over the phone or in a non aggressive email reply.

Your career will depend on it.  Don’t risk losing a client, a friend, or your reputation for being known as the infamous non-responder.

Tips for taking control of your email:

  • Can’t respond right this minute?  Use the Mark as Unread function so you’ll remember to reply later.
  • Create email rules to automatically sort and route email for you.
  • Stay organized and develop a system that works for you.  My inbox only contains emails that I haven’t addressed.  Everything I completed gets filed into a folder.
  • Create meaningful folders and subfolders.  A filing system is only effective when you know where to go to retrieve something.
  • Prioritize and handle the most urgent emails first.  Many programs like Outlook let you assign different color flags for tracking prioritization.  You can even assign a category name for each color flag, very useful!
  • Need to do research before having an answer to a client’s email?  Reply right away to the client letting them know you’re investigating the issue and will follow up in a few days.
  • Watch your total inbox size & empty your trash.  A lot of servers will stop sending you new emails if your account has gone over the size limit.
  • Steer away from arguing, complaining, and snide remarks in emails.  Emails leave a permanent trail that you don’t want to sneak out and haunt you later.
  • We’re all busy but that doesn’t mean you can ignore emails from your friends.  Family will probably forgive you for being flaky but friends will hold it against you if you never respond to them.
  • Check your spam folder regularly.  Spam filters aren’t perfect and sometimes important emails can end up in there by mistake!

CONCLUSION – Email Better

If you can practice all of those tips regularly you’re actively improving your communication!  Don’t downplay email skills – staying on top of emails and responding in a timely and courteous manner are key skills now equally as important as face to face meetings in our current work environments.

A lot of work places don’t record phone conversations but I can guarantee most of them are archiving every email you’ve ever sent!  Get active with your email and avoid being known as the person with the black hole inbox!

Related: Learn How To Negotiate A Severance and be free from all the workplace BS!


Sam @ Financial Samurai – “Slicing Through Money’s Mysteries”

Folllow on Twitter @FinancialSamurai and subscribe to our RSS feed.

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25 thoughts on “The Reply Button Is There For A Reason: Email Efficiency Is Important”

  1. At present I have four e-mail accounts, which has assisted me to keep things more organized close to the joint: just one for critical small business, a single for not so critical organization, one for family and buddies and just one for commercial, miscellaneous stuff. I try not to subscribe to Anything at all to retain my e-mail as lean as doable.

  2. Kevin@InvestItWisely

    Hah, this email really hit home! I usually try to answer email within the day or next day, but sometimes I let it slip, because I want to think about the reply or the reply is pending on something else, and then I move on to other things. Bad, bad, bad, I know ;)

  3. Haha. Before stopping here I just read over an email and said to myself I’ll reply later. Procrastination isn’t easy to fix! I even use the “mark as unread” button, and still slack off on the reply! This is something I need to get better at.

    I have about 400 unread personal emails. Off to go reply to some now!

  4. Single Mom Rich Mom

    I run at “inbox zero” and have for about 10 years – probably longer than lifehacker has been around. If it’s in my inbox, it means something has to be done with it so I don’t like too much in there because then I would get overwhelmed thinking I had to do something with all that stuff. 90% of the time I’ll reply quickly to someone to say I’m looking into it and it will take a couple of days, never just ignore it.

    In a work situation if the email is a touchy subject and I think my message could be misinterpreted, I pick up the phone and call them.

    To keep it lean and mean, I usually have a bunch of folders that make sense depending on the job and then one archive folder that just stores anything miscellaneous. Also liberally use the delete button though.

    1. Good tip to pick up the phone and CALL! I’ve had some serious e-mail miscomm before, b/c writing is so hard to read tone.

      Impressed you run a “inbox zero” theme. Wow!

  5. I’ve got about 9000 email in my inbox, I get about 200 per day and only have about 25 unread from last night that I will get to later this weekend.

    My trick is I either reply to the email directly and flag it with a green flag if I need to follow up later (like if the person may not be on top of it and reply to me). Many times I need to think about it before replying so I will use a red flag to remind myself to reply later. This is good as suppliers from customers, suppliers and more senior people require a measured response, at times.


  6. Oh this hit the nail on the head – love this post. I have so many friends that never respond to personal emails I’ve sent them that I sadly don’t really consider them friends anymore. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, I just can’t stand people never getting back to me. Let’s face it – in this day and age we are ALL busy, so I take it personally that I’m not even worth 10 seconds of their time to at least say “sorry running out the door, call me later” or “thanks for the email, swamped now will write soon” – even if they didn’t follow up after a quick reply I’d at least feel acknowledged and not have to wonder if my email didn’t go through or not.

    Email is an amazing way to communicate if it’s done right! Here’s to hoping more people improve their etiquette!

    1. It is pretty damn sad when “friends” don’t respond. Friends don’t let friend’s emails go unresponded to! I guess stuff like Facebook makes people lazy on e-mail. Social media is making us lazy in a way!

  7. Oh man. This post was made to bonk me over the head, that’s for sure. My inbox currently has 3071 emails in it. They’re ALL read, but not all answered or sorted. In addition, I have 20 very specific sub-folders, which are all loaded as well. 0_o
    I use my email to keep track of incoming orders, art projects, auctions, client addresses, conventions, friends, family, legal documents, trips, fan mail, and freelance projects.

    I get overwhelmed with email, and get behind. And yes, I do use many of your tips (especially flagging and marking as unread, and sub-folders), but I put the organizing off too long. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. I try to respond the same day, but am certainly not perfect. Like one of the other comments, I tend to put off the unpleasant ones.

    I don’t use email in my primary job, because of privacy concerns, so that helps keep the numbers manageable.

    My problem is my inability to get my exchange server to delete emails, so I end up deleting from Blackberry, laptop and PC!

    I want to get Outlook more organized with the colors, folders etc re “Getting Things Done” but, alas, I am not getting THAT thing done….

  9. Hime, thanks for your guest post. Looking at one of my inboxes, I have over 4,500 e-mails! In fact, I only organize the important ones, which are like 30% of all the e-mails.

    I tend to keep all my e-mails in my inbox b/c it’s easier for me to find by just clicking the sort button by From, Subject, Received, Size etc. Hard to navigate on my PDA if multiple folders are at work.

    All personal e-mails sent to me are responded to within a 24 hour time period. I’m shocked at how unresponsive some are, and it makes it easy for me to just ignore them and move on since there is so much going on.

    Best, Sam

    1. savvysavingbytes

      Holy moly! 4,500 e-mails! That amount of emails would pop the buttons on my accounts.

      1. Indeed… good thing I got a big inbox! My other e-mail account has about 1,200, and another about 600. Yes, I get A LOT of e-mails! But, I try and respond to every single darn one of them, just like I try and respond to every comment here which contains a question or a statement that needs addressing!

  10. My e-mails are usually answered right away or end up way down at the bottom of the pile. I often try to use ideas from Lifehacker for inbox management. I have about eight e-mails waiting for reply at the moment. That is not so bad, right?

  11. I believe that the most important thing here is having the courage to say things that are difficult to say. I get e-mails from people asking me to trade links. I don’t trade links. I worry that I will hurt people’s feelings for me to tell them that. But I force myself to respond because I think it is cowardly not to do so and, even if no one else will know that I acted like a coward, I will and that will make a difference over time.

    I do this in discussion-board and blog posts too. Lots of times you know that saying what you believe will upset people. It’s okay to take a gentle approach. But you have to say what you believe or you are not doing the job.

    I think that the most common reason why people don’t respond to e-mails is that they want to put off doing something unpleasant (something that takes courage).


    1. I like your point Rob, in those who don’t want to say “no I’m not interested” and would rather avoid conflict than reply.

      From the receiver’s end, then the answer is to cut them off after a week of non response and move on. If they wanted to respond, they would. And if they don’t, it’s b/c they aren’t interested. So simple.

  12. Nunzio Bruno

    I loved this guest post! I can honestly say that the abyss of my inbox (in my earlier days) had gotten the best of me. Now though I have a system and I try to answer/address emails as they come in. I missed out on a few opportunities because of being lazy about replying too. Even if I can’t give it my full attention I like shooting a little note back via my smart phone that lets the sender know I’ve received there message and I will get back to them as soon as I can. I think creating a meaningful organizational system is critical too. There’s nothing worse to having folders that don’t mean anything three days after creation or having sorting rules that create more chaos than they are worth. All because you just went through the motions of trying to get organzied and didn’t really commit to it.

  13. savvysavingbytes

    I like the idea about a quick email reply to say you’re in the process of researching something. The biggest reason I don’t reply quickly to emails is that I want to think about something later in more depth. Currently I have four email accounts, which has helped me to keep things more organized around the joint: one for important business, one for not so important business, one for family and friends and one for commercial, miscellaneous stuff. I try not to subscribe to ANYTHING to keep my email as lean as possible.

      1. savvysavingbytes

        Guess I differentiate between subscriptions and notifications. Since I
        of course wouldn’t want to miss a single pearl of wisdom here, I do receive
        word every time a gem is posted.

  14. Some great tips! I sometimes find myself slacking on replying to emails that are consuming my inbox. I’ve started sorting my emails in folders as well, and that has definitely helped. Thanks for the great tips. :)

  15. I tend to respond to emails pretty fast and at the moment only have 4 in my inbox. Better to take of everything up front in my opinion. While I am a big fan of hitting the ¨unread¨button to help important emails avoid slipping into the abyss, I rarely surf my spam folder. I might miss the occasional relevant email, but between adult website spam, sketchy store ads, and magazine subscriptions I don´t need, it is NOT worth it!

  16. Great post! I was just thinking about this yesterday. A friend of mine had sent me an email that I hadn’t responded to, and I spent all this time trying to find it. I think the ‘marking as unread’ is a great idea that I was implement today!

    I will say, I am usually pretty good about handling each personal email as it shows up, but sometimes I am on my way out the door and then I forget about it. What I am bad about is deleting the junk. My inbox is a disaster right now, just filled with useless offers. I also need to go back and ‘unsubscribe’ to a bunch of stuff.

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