I just realized that there’s a habit that I’ve seen in each of the best leaders I’ve worked with. It’s a simple habit, one that I never really noticed. But with deeper reflection, it’s clear that this habit has powerful benefits.
Here’s how I noticed it.
This morning, at 9:35, I sent a note to my client. It was a simple link to an exercise he had committed to doing, and I didn’t think much of it. By 9:40 a.m. I had a reply in my inbox that simply said “On it.”
I understood in that moment that there was a difference between “replying” and “reacting.” A difference between sending a note back and taking action. A powerful difference that, when I thought about it, tapped into broader themes of motivation, accountability, and prioritization. What was more compelling was this: the best leaders I know all do it.
What does “reply” mean? What I’m talking about here is the art of sending a short note back to someone to let them know you received it, what you’re doing, what you’re not doing, etc.
Too often we get in the trap of “I will reply once this is done” or “I will reply once I have a perfectly clear perspective to share.” The contradiction here is that it’s not what we want or expect from others. When we send an email checking in on a project, we’re not hoping that the other person will drag their feet on replying until everything is at 100%. In fact, when they get back to us right away it helps us know what’s happening and how to engage.
Replying right away gives clarity to the sender. It shows them they’re valued and worth a quick reply. This is especially important when that other person is working for us. Replying right away acknowledges the other person and makes them feel heard. What a difficult thing to do in this distracted, white-noise age!
This week, try a new approach to your emails and other messages. Only give yourself the option of either replying right away or never replying at all. This forces us into action. If it’s in the “reply right away” category, don’t delay! Send the note and archive it, delete it, file it, whatever you do. If it’s in the “never reply” category, don’t leave it unread or hanging around to get around to someday. Again, archive it, delete it, file it, whatever you do.
To be clear, replying “right away” doesn’t mean you’re up at every hour anxiously hunched over your phone. You should have clear boundaries with yourself and when and how often you engage in email. Reply right away means promptly, during your dedicated time for email, not immediately.
By now you must be thinking, “He wants me to spend twice as much time in my inbox!” Actually, I want you to spend half as much time in your inbox. This is where “reply” and “react” get conflated. Reacting means taking action. It means accomplishing a task or finalizing a deliverable. And we want to do this both less and more deliberately.
For the messages that you decide need your reply, keep it short and simple. Think about your true priorities, based on what’s important and not what’s urgent, and decide whether to react now, soon, later, or never.
Reacting now is what most of us do, but experiment with saying “tomorrow” or “by end of week.” Let the person know that you heard them and what to expect from you by when. Most powerfully, though, never forget about “never.” Own your schedule and priorities and if what you’re being asked to do doesn’t fit inside that, let go of the guilt and say no.
When you say no it doesn’t have to be a harsh or determined “no.” Simply say that what they’re asking for isn’t something you’ll get to by the time they need it, or that it’s not something that will take priority given what you’re working on. You can still be solution-oriented. Ask if it’s okay to push past the deadline. Suggest ways of de-scoping the work. Offer someone or something that can help.
This week, try keeping your replies to three sentences or less. Include only what you’re doing (or not doing), when you’re doing it by, and any requests or questions. E.g., “Got it — I’ll get this back to you on Thursday morning, just send me the client data today so I can get started.” Or, “I won’t get to this today, check with Sarah to see if she has capacity.”
Sets expectations. Own your priorities. And do less by quickly communicating more.
Putting This to Practice
The difference between replying and reacting is important. Reply more and more quickly, react less and more slowly.
Experiment with giving yourself two options for replying: do it or delete it. Experiment with giving yourself only three sentences to reply with, and clarifying that something will be done now, soon, later, or never.
When you respond to a message, ask yourself what priority the action to take really is. How important is it? Find ways to pass back some responsibility and delegate the things that you don’t need to do yourself. This is less like reacting and more like “pro-acting.” Here are some more ideas on how to proactively manage your responsibilities and free up time. It’s easier in the long run to reply more quickly and react more slowly. By replying right away, you show people that they matter and make them feel heard. You also take control of perceptions by clarifying by when you’ll do what, if at all. And all this gives you real opportunity to delegate and empower others.
Good luck on the journey.
Originally published in The Innovation