There are days when I feel I'm drowning in email. I just can't respond to every single one in a timely fashion. So when I can finally carve out time to respond to those emails, my fingers automatically begin typing this phrase: "Sorry for the delayed reply..."

I know I'm not alone.

These five words have become so commonplace in email culture, they were even the topic of a recent satirical Shouts & Murmurs column in The New Yorker by Susanna Wolff.

Sorry for the delayed response. I opened your e-mail on my phone while my date was in the bathroom, but then I saw that it required more than a "yes" or "no" reply, decided that was too much work, marked it as unread, and then forgot about it entirely until just now!

The urge to fold sorry-for-the-delayed-reply language into every single email I reply to is strong. Even if I'm responding as quickly as the next day, I feel myself itching to apologize for my delayed reply.

We need to stop saying it, as Melissa Dahl points out on Science of Us. Because emails are rarely urgent enough to require that we apologize for replying to them in a delayed fashion. The real problem with apologizing for not instantly replying to every email? It sets the precedent that we're supposed to instantly reply every email. If you reply within a reasonable time frame, what's there to apologize for?

But since sorry-for-the-delayed-reply is so commonplace, how do we break the habit? Here are few ideas.

Time-block your emailing

We can't immediately reply to all emails as they come in. This leads us to squeezing those replies in whenever we have time, which could be awhile, which can lead us down the dangerous sorry-for-the-delayed-reply trap.

Instead, try blocking out a certain time each day in which you reply to emails. By following a time blocking to-do list system, you slot out certain periods of your day for certain tasks. No need to reply instantly to that email, or try to remember to reply later. Instead, reply during the block of time in your day you've designated for emailing. "When we have all of our tasks placed into a specific date, time, and duration, we sleep more soundly knowing everything that needs to get done is in its place," time management expert Kevin Kruse told Fast Company.

Just stop saying sorry

If you want to go cold turkey and stop apologizing once and for all, there's a Chrome plug-in for Gmail that can help. It's kind of like spell-check, but instead of catching misspellings, it catches exact words such as "sorry" and "just." Called Just Not Sorry, the plug-in will warn you if you're typing an email and type "sorry" without giving much thought as to why you are apologizing.

Put the onus on the sender

Some emails might require a quick reply. But it's hard to wade through the sea that is your inbox and know exactly which ones those are.

So behavioral economist Dan Ariely came up with a solution. To help prioritize the urgency of the 300 or so emails he receives a day, his auto-reply asks the sender to fill out a form. In the form, the sender must provide more detail about their request, including by when they expect a response. The number of people who require a response right away? Just two percent.

"With email, we treat everything as if we're in a hurry," Ariely said when he was a guest on Bloomberg's Game Plan podcast. "There's a huge difference between important and urgent."

Published on: Apr 19, 2017
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