Emails After Hours: What to Do About It?

I really enjoy understanding the time-optimized dynamics of teams and businesses. I do that through both group and individual assessments of the Time Management Analysis (TMA) report. My process is to identify group improvements in addition to individual enhancements that help themselves and the work group.

Recently I was having a one-on-one session with Cathy, and we were reviewing her results of the TMA. One of her improvement areas was being able to prioritize her tasks.

As I note in my book The Time-Optimized Life, Cathy is not alone.

“Too many times, people establish a list of tasks and start with the easiest ones first. Simple tasks give a false sense of accomplishment because, again, not all tasks are equal. We all have the best intentions at the start of our day, but interruptions and changes are bound to happen. It is better to have the easy tasks at the bottom and the significant to-dos set at the top.”

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As we discussed and reviewed her priorities, I found that a lot of people in the organization rely on Cathy for complex and simple tasks. She deals with them as best she can but has found emails are beginning to cause her stress. Cathy tries to evaluate her plans at the end of the day but finds her schedule can be adjusted because of what happens outside of work, particularly what occurs to her inbox overnight. She often wakes in the morning to find late breaking responsibilities assigned to her by those who have very different sleep patterns.

The fundamental changes to work in the digital age have created some unintended side effects. We can communicate whenever and wherever we want. Overnight emails can alleviate one person’s sense of responsibility, only to surprise their coworker with an unanticipated burden. Let’s look at both sides (the sender and receiver) and discuss ways to maintain solid productivity while at the same time minimizing stress.

The Sender

It’s 1:00 am and you are wrapping up a zone of efficiency. You are going to send a list of needs to your direct reports, asking for detailed and specific information. Before you hit the send button, consider the following:

  • Are you aware that your team will see this email first thing in the morning, knowing you were up late?
  • Will they be thinking there is some unannounced expectation that they need to be working late?
  • Can this wait until the morning to send?
  • Have you established a timeline for when this needs to be done?
  • Have you articulated the level of importance?
  • Are you giving them an opportunity to negotiate a timeframe to get the activity done?

Your ability and desire to work outside of normal business hours can be an advantage. However, your coworkers, peers, supervisors, and subordinates are observing you. Let those late-night emails not cause a disturbance, but a sense of understanding.

The Receiver  

It’s 7:30am and you went into the office a little early to get a jump on the day and power through some of those tasks. You open your email and see that the boss has been active again last night and now there are three more things already added to your full plate. You’re frustrated because you came in early only to have your plans thrown out of whack.

Before you disturb your own peace, consider the following.

  • Is this really a high priority or an emergency?
  • Is there a defined due date?
  • Do you really have all you need to complete the task?
  • Can you wait to try and negotiate the details and deadline?
  • Can you share your concerns over these late-night emails?
  • Can you ask for help in reprioritizing your other tasks?

Peacefully Act

Change comes with the business territory. Sometimes there are last-minute high priority items that will cause significant reprioritization, but that tends to be the exception not the rule.

As the sender of overnight emails, be mindful of how they might be received and be specific on your needs and the timeline.

As the receiver, evaluate and assess before you allow your flow to be disrupted. Chances are you can wait for a direct discussion or a response email from your clarifying questions. In the meantime, stick with your original task plan and be productive.

Cathy is proactively working with others to manage expectations and to gain the perspectives of the “overnighters.” As she works through prioritizing, her dreams will be less about emails and the stress that can some with them in the morning.

Take the Time Management Analysis – For Free

As I mentioned at the beginning, Cathy took the Time Management Analysis (TMA) and we were able to identify and help create solutions for her to be more productive. Take it yourself and get a COMPLIMENTARY SUMMARY ASSESSMENT.

David Buck is the author of the book “The Time-Optimized Life, owner of Kairos Management Solutions, LLC, and founder of the Infinity Lifestyle Design program. As a certified professional retirement coach (CPRC), David works with financial services providers helping their clients create a post-career lifestyle strategy. To learn more, contact him at or visit Infinity Lifestyle Design.