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No Such Thing As An Urgent Email


    Bryan Green

    Its been said that 90% of a Project Manager’s job is communicating. I don’t know where that statistic comes from, and I’m not going to look it up, but it sounds about right.

    If so, why are so many people in the industry so bad at it?

    Email is a powerful tool that allows us to communicate with others quickly and easily, but it’s important to remember that not all forms of communication are optimal for every purpose, and not all emails are created equal.

    email is an asynchronous form of communication

    -me, later

    In particular, there’s a common misconception that emails can be “urgent.” Some email software will even let you mark your emails with a little red exclamation point to let everyone know how urgent it is (you know the one I mean). But in reality, there’s no such thing as an urgent email.

    Here’s a fun story:

    I once arrived to a project site for an inspection. I was a bit early, so I pulled out my phone to check some emails. (I’ll explain in a future post why I no longer check emails to kill time, but I was young and naïve).

    Anyway, I see an email from my the senior VP with the following message:

    Hey Bryan,

    Can you send me the table you included in last months report? I have a meeting at 8am and I really want to show them.


    Your Boss

    Email sent at: 7:45am

    Report needed by: 8:00am

    Current time: 8:15am

    In the time it took me to leave my house and I arrive on site, I’d received a time-sensitive task and missed the deadline. Luckily, It wasn’t super important that the report make it into the meeting, but it definitely could have had I been reached another way.

    What’s the problem with email?

    This should be obvious, but email is an asynchronous form of communication.

    What do I mean by asynchronous? I mean there’s a gap between when an email is sent and when it is read. When you send an email, you have no way of knowing when the recipient will receive it, let alone when they’ll respond. Sure, you can turn on ‘read receipts’, but do you actually know that it gets read? No. You don’t.

    As an aside: when you get an email with ‘read receipt’ turned on, you have to confirm that you’ve read it before you’ve actually read it. Also, the recipient can choose not to respond So, they’re useless. Stop using them.


    If you’re sending info urgently, its likely that the email is urgent to you. That doesn’t mean that it will feel urgent enough to your recipient for them to respond immediately. They may be busy with other work, out of the office, or in a different time zone. They may be ignoring you.

    Even if they do receive the email right away, they may not be in a position to respond until later. I often check my emails only periodically throughout the day to maximize my productivity. If you send me an email at 9am, I may not see it until noon. Even if I’m in the office. Even if I’m at my desk, on my computer. Email isn’t my top priority, and it probably shouldn’t be yours either.

    If your recipient is getting as many emails as you are (which is likely), or they don’t have an optimized inbox management system (even more likely), or they don’t care about their job (that’s a joke, but lets be honest…) then your email will be one of hundreds that will vie equally for their attention.

    Most people suffer from an abundance of emails, and most people have no strategy for managing them. So, your recipient’s inbox is likely full of other emails that they need to address, and it’s unlikely that your email will be the only one they see.

    So what to do?

    Nothing really beats a phone call or a face-to-face conversation for urgent communication. You can convey the sense of urgency in your tone and get an immediate response, even if the response is that your contact will need to get back to you. If face-to-face or voice messaging isn’t available, you can always use an instant messaging app. Ideally one that allow you to see if the recipient is active and will allow you to communicate back and forth in real-time.

    Urgency requires interruption

    -also me

    While IM and SMS may feel similar to email, they offer the advantage that IMs/texts are usually less common than emails in the workplace (so your recipient may not tune them out) and they often come with an audible notification. I probably received about two dozen emails since I began writing this post but I have no idea because they arrive silently. I definitely didn’t receive any texts, though. And I know that without even looking at my phone.

    Email is useless, then?

    Email obviously isn’t useless. In fact, its probably still the communication method you’ll use most. It has many advantages over other forms of communication, but urgency isn’t one of them. If you need to distribute files, address a large group, create a semi-permanently accessible record, or all of the above, then email is the go-to.

    Email actually beats out most other forms of communication in one key area: persistence

    Persistence is the idea that after the communication is over, the information is available and searchable.

    If something is urgent, a phone call is probably best. If something is important or sensitive, face-to-face provides the personal experience necessary. But if something requires persistence, send it in an email. And in project management, persistence is often more crucial than the other two criteria. Just not if time is a factor. Check out the graph below.

    this isn’t scientific, but its about where I see most common forms of communication

    No single form of communication is best for everything. If you need something urgently, though, your best option is something on the right side of the graph.

    Here are the general rules I follow:

    1. Somewhere in the middle? Text or IM
    2. Is it urgent? Phone call or in-person
    3. Is it important? Email
    4. Neither urgent or important? Keep it to yourself. Or Tweet it, I don’t know

    In-person communication and phone calls serve the “urgency” purpose because there’s a necessary interruption required. You’re invading someone’s attention to convey your message. Urgency requires interruption.

    Instant Messenger and Text Messages are great for quick, less important messages with a tiny dash of interruption. They offer the added benefit that the messages persist for future recall.

    And nothing beats an email for the power to look back and prove that you did, in fact, let them know about something (“per my last email”, anyone?)

    Okay, cool. But what if you have information to share that is both urgent and requires persistent? Do more than one thing. No one says you can’t. And I’m saying you can.

    Call to discuss, and then follow-up with an email.

    Shoot them a text with the info and then pop by their desk to talk about it.

    The options are limitless! (Not really, there’s only a handful of useful combinations).

    In conclusion, there’s no such thing as an urgent email. While email can be a convenient way to communicate, it’s not the best choice for urgent or time-sensitive information. Instead, use a different form of communication, such as a phone call or instant messaging, to convey information urgently. Follow up with an email for posterity, if required. Keep in mind that recipients have their own priorities, schedule, and work. So giving them the time they need to process your requests and respond will increase the chances of a positive outcome.

    I’ll get more into how to manage emails effectively in a future post. Effective information management is possibly one of the most useful skills for a project manager. But this is a start.

    This week, try calling someone you had planned on emailing.



    Bryan Green

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