Once again, I’ve forgotten to text back my mom, and once again, I’ve found myself frantically crafting a “Sorry it took so long to reply, but…” text, hoping she’ll understand. (Spoiler alert: She’s an angel and always does.)
Regardless of my intention, replying late to texts can send an unintentional negative message to the recipient that the lapse in time was deliberate or even loaded, says licensed professional counselor Theresa Libios, LPC. This, then, can have the effect of folks filling that blank space of communication with reasons they think you’re not responding. “Texting is seen as a quick response,” says Libios. “When there’s a long silence, it can be seen as, ‘oh, that person doesn’t like me’, or ‘oh, I’m not important’.”
“Sometimes you have to focus on loving yourself more than replying to texts; your mental health has to come first.” —Theresa Libios, LPC
As a habitual late text responder, this narrative fills me with guilt. I’m aware that my phone is essentially an extension of my body; it’s with me at all times. But just because I can drop whatever I’m doing and respond immediately doesn’t mean I must or even should. And according to experts, the only thing I should do is avail myself of that guilt. “Sometimes you have to focus on loving yourself more than replying to texts; your mental health has to come first,” says Libios. Furthermore, adds clinical psychologist Andrew Kahn, PsyD, “a phone call, a text, and an email are invitations to an interaction—they’re not requirements in that moment.”
There are reasons—including my ADHD, the need to protect my mental energy and health, and competing demands for my attention—why I’m a chronic late texter. What I wish folks knew is replying late to texts has nothing to do with the them—certainly not how much I value them—and everything to do with me. I also contend there’s nothing wrong with texting back late, and believe there’s a need to accept the different ways people may interact with text messaging in general.
3 valid reasons for replying to late to texts
1. Sometimes, I just forget to hit send
If you have ADHD like I do—or if you’re human, really—you might relate to typing out a detailed response to a text, only to realize hours later that you forgot to hit “send.” Forgetfulness happens to all of us, says Dr. Kahn.
Pressing tasks have the ability to pull our attention away from something else and can interrupt our train of thought. For those of us with ADHD, external stimuli of any kind (pressing or not) have the power to pull us away from the task at hand due to our hypersensitivity. “The problem for many of us [with ADHD] is that, especially in the modern world, our ability to focus on something and sustain attention requires some of the neurological skills that maybe we don’t have as naturally,” says Dr. Kahn.
Once your attention is pulled away, forgetting that initial task is super-easy. “Texts are great when they’re immediate, because they give you notification,” says Dr. Kahn. But “as soon as you decide in that moment not to pay attention to it, the next stimulus takes over, and [the text] gets buried under all of the other things that you notice more rapidly, which is part of what ADHD is: the difficulty in shifting your attention and focus.”
2. Other times, texting can feel like a chore
As someone who works from home and spends her days toggling between internet browser tabs and Zoom meetings, digital burnout plays a part in my lateness.
Spending over 10 hours a day in front of a computer for my job can spark serious screen fatigue, and replying to personal messages can feel like a second job. After a long workday, responding to a lighthearted message from a friend can end up feeling like another assignment. Libios says this form of social exhaustion has been especially evident among her younger clientele. “It becomes overwhelming because there are so many communication methods to check,” says Libios. “I’ve had teenagers—not their parents, but they themselves—take a total reset, take away their phone and shut it down, because it became too much.”
According to licensed clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, texting back and forth lacks the exciting, engaging aspects of a face-to-face conversation, yet requires the same level of attention and involvement. “Digital communication is fantastic for staying connected in some ways,” Dr. Daramus previously told Well+Good, “but it takes up social energy without giving us things like touch or shared experiences that we can only have in person. You might be getting socially exhausted, just like you might at a party, but even more so because of the lack of physical sensation.”
Assigning weight to incoming texts, emails, and phone calls can lead to replying late to texts, too. When you’re receiving dozens (or more) of messages from work, family, and friends, picking which ones to reply to first can be hard, leading to decision fatigue, indecision, and procrastination.
3. Life happens
Sometimes I accidentally leave my phone at home while on a coffee run. Sometimes I forget to charge my phone before leaving the house, and it dies while I’m in the middle of an emotional text convo. Sometimes, I’m so engrossed in work that I can’t be bothered to send a quick reply at the risk of interrupting one of my rare streams of hyper-focused attention.
Despite my best efforts to stay in the driver’s seat of my life, sometimes various circumstances grab the steering wheel. And at the end of an especially chaotic day of twists and turns, I’m left trying to figure out how to get back on track. For me, late texts are sometimes just the result of a really, really hectic day.
Best practices for preserving your relationships if you’re a late texter
Setting healthy boundaries around texting and communicating them clearly with the people in your life can help you break free from the cycle of guilt, says Libios. For instance, if you simply don’t text during work, let your family and friends know; if you often forget to respond, let them know that they can definitely follow up with you 12 or 24 or 48 hours later (whatever time frame works for you and your mental health).
In addition to setting and communicating boundaries, Dr. Kahn recommends creating quick text shortcuts that you can fire off for when you don’t have the energy to craft a personalized response. Something as simple as “Hey! I can’t talk right now, but I will respond to this ASAP—thank you for understanding” can buy you the time you need without hurting your pal’s feelings.
You might also dedicate a specific times in your day to texting so that you can lend the task your full attention. Compartmentalizing this task into scheduled bursts can keep your inbox from overflowing at the end of the day and save you from feelings of guilt or overwhelm. It helps keep you prompt, too, resulting in fewer instances of replying late to texts.
As for me, putting communication guardrails in place is helping me preserve my relationships while also giving me the time, space, and grace I need—without any guilt. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to text my mom back real quick.