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Stop Saying "I'm Sorry."

This post was originally published on Ms. JD.

I recently received some sage advice from a valued mentor. She said to stop saying “I’m sorry.” In emails, in person, on the phone, no matter where.

You are a busy, successful professional. Just. Stop. Saying. It.

She needs a face card because she doesn't really mean it.

Here’s the thinking. “Sorry for the delay,” “Sorry for missing this,” “Sorry for not responding earlier” is for your benefit, to assuage your guilt, not theirs. You need a mea culpa release, but they don’t. Unless they are a client with a pressing need, they probably HAVEN’T EVEN NOTICED that you haven’t responded, because they are also busy, successful professionals.

By interjecting “I’m sorry” into everything, you’re highlighting there’s something to apologize for, when that’s probably not the case. If there is some gross misconduct on your part, you should use more of your empathy arsenal than “I’m sorry.” More importantly, aim to never be in that position.

So let’s admit it: successful people get busy. Very busy. And they triage well, which is part of why they’re so successful. And sometimes that means action items fall onto the B or even the C list. Which is not only OK, it’s optimal. If somebody is working with you for your expertise, a slight delay or overlook should not make her fly off the handle. Make that work for you.

Here’s my dirty secret: I prioritize. It’s so dirty I am reluctant to share it, because it’s pretty Machiavellian. I felt a bit slimy at first, but I’ve gotten over it. You will, too.

Your time and attention is a valuable and scarce commodity. Don't squander it, or foster the sense of squandering it by being available 24/7. Pay attention to clients? Yes. Deal with time-sensitive matters? Of course. Immediately answer email that doesn’t fall into those categories? Never.

Unless you are on an active deal or in settlement discussions, do not respond in real time to email. There are two precepts at work here.

Firstly, time management gurus trip over themselves to counsel us that we should only look at email twice a day. So limit email for the sake of efficiency. I don’t always do this, but when I am hyper productive, I do. It’s like taking a vacation from distractions and allows me to get into the zone. Set aside structured time to review your e-mail, and make sure it doesn’t run over.

Secondly, from an asset management standpoint, you don’t want clients or contacts getting the impression you are sitting at your laptop just waiting for the next email to drop so that you can dutifully respond to it immediately. You are a busy, successful professional. Unless you work in PR, you should not have instant accessibility.

OK, I get it; you want to convey your clients that they have 24/7 access to you (if that’s the goal). But try these options:

“Thanks for this. I am in meetings today, but can look at this tonight and will respond this evening.”

“Thanks for sending. I can review tomorrow. Please email me or my assistant if more immediate attention is needed.”

Or try this. “Hi Sarah. I’m sending this to you for your review. I’m out tomorrow for an all-day negotiation session, but will be able to check email twice a day and will respond as needed within that time frame. If an immediate response is not needed, I will respond when negotiations are completed. Please flag email as urgent if you need my immediate attention.”

Again, if you have an active deal or negotiation, you need to be available. But with other clients, let them know beforehand of your non-availability. Federal judges post their non-availability, and you can too. There’s no crime or shame in doing so. You are not an unlimited resource. If your time is a commodity, unlimited access to it dwindles its value.

So, restriction is a good thing. Make sure your conduct amplifies that message. I check my e-mail early morning before I get into the meat of my work. When I respond to client emails, I let them know ahead of time if I will be offline (occupied) that day. It reins in expectations, and sets boundaries that help clients feel at ease if they don’t hear from me.

I don’t want to dummy this down, but this is the equivalent of telling your kids you will be with them in five minutes. Even if they complain, as mine did, that “your minutes are really long” you will have established expectations, and no one’s hair catches fire. Yours, theirs, no one’s. Here’s to fire prevention.

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