Email is often the bane of our daily lives. I have struggled with it for a couple of years in part because of trying to figure out a better system and then much of this year has been a readjustment since my long time email address had to be retired.**
Through all of these trials and errors, I have finally found a way to keep a handle on the email beast. I cannot claim that I have all the answers but here are some strategies that have kept me a float and keep me from spending my entire day in email.
But before the strategies, I need to start with the way I use email.
I have always used my university account for university specific business. I have always had a separate email account for the rest of my professional life (e.g., this is where I communicate with folks about research or national service). This is a specific quirk to me. I like things separated in different accounts because it feeds into the way that I work. Now, if you like everything in one place and have multiple accounts, then you probably need to set up forwarding into your main account or put numerous accounts into something like gmail.
Do Immediate Triage at designated times
I have two times of the day that I work in my email. Late morning and early evening. I often times do not check my email outside of the times right before I begin to the work. Not having email open encourages me to focus on the task(s) at hand and not use email as an excuse to not be doing the actual work. My evening email time is often one where I use the “send later” feature so that folks don’t feel like they need to respond at 10 or 11 or even later. I typically set emails to arrive in folks inboxes in the morning. It’s a small thing, but it goes to the idea that my work time shouldn’t effect someone else’s.##
Immediate triage is the actual work of taking care of everything that has come in that takes around 3-4 minutes or less. This way those things are done and/or moved on. If it takes 3-4 minutes or less, I do then right then and there and then archive or delete the email.
Examples of immediate triage from just the past few days:
- Acknowledging a student response
- Immediately setting up a meeting (this included sending out the calendar invite)
- Sending a follow up email to others because I got a response that clarified the task
- Forwarded a document requested
- Sent a draft to someone who had not previously been on the list of respondents
- Answered queries about the RHM symposium, a potential CFP for the book series, and other pretty simple answers
Immediate triage keeps you on top of the most pressing things.
But the question that I get asked the most often is how do you learn what is important and what is not? The answer is, of course, not an easy one. Here are my rules of thumb.
- Questions or actions that really, really do impact student lives (e.g., needing a signature or a decision on transfer credit or getting a student enrolled, etc.)
- Quick questions from immediate colleagues (e.g., a query from your chair or one from a member of a national committee so they can do what they need to do)
- Research/publication related items with due dates or your tasks is needed so others can do their task (e.g., page proofs or getting clarifying info to a collaborator so they can keep writing or getting out contributor agreements)
- Most messages related to an important project or task or committee (e.g.,
Of course, there are often exceptions to the “rules.” There are times of the term, especially if you are an administrator, that you have to have your email on because the questions and queries come fast and furious. Examples of these times include the beginning and end of term and the start of advising. Other exceptions may include working through the final details of some event or program or if you’ve emailed someone and they respond and then you respond. However, this last example is one that I would encourage you to pick up the phone. I know we all hate to talk on the phone, but some of the email can be eliminated and things move along much quicker with a simple, and short, phone call.
For many people, having a ton of email in the main inbox (so not in folders or in tags) and particularly ton of unread email makes folks stressed out.
So after you are done with immediate triage then you need to go through and get some of those other things out of there. There are two reasons for this. First it can reduce the stress of feeling like you are overwhelmed with tasks in your email, and two, it can reduce stress because you have a better sense of what you need to do.
Moving things means
- Creating a specific task based on the email in whatever your to-do list or task list is
- Shifting research items into other spaces if it makes sense (like not using emails to exchange drafts)
- deleting cause it doesn’t apply to you after another read
- delegating by forwarding/assigning with specific instructions
- Responding and saying no (some of these can be done in triage)
In other words, after triage, I focus on getting even more stuff out the inbox by moving it in some capacity. This act of moving things helps me to also see the larger picture of what things have come up that I need to put into my larger workflow and it also helps to see where some projects are in their own development.
A note on the first item in this moving list: create a task. Sticking to this idea has really helped move things out the inbox and also help me keep track. I use a planner (link) so I have a specific place for emails that I need to send. So if I need to follow up with someone or need to be reminded to check on something if someone hasn’t emailed me back, I write that in my planner in the appropriate spot. If one of the items of delegation has a task set to it, then I write down in the planner when I told the person I needed it by. This keeps me better organized and not missing all the details that come with a multi-part academic life.
Clear out the back log slowly
Often people make the mistake of trying to get rid of the clutter or the things that have been sitting (because they may not be super pressing or need an immediate response but they do need a response) and then let the new stuff stack up.
I’m of the opinion that you have to stay on top of the new stuff and then slowly get rid of the backlog or those things that are sitting there.
Here’s an example of something that is just sitting in my inbox. I’ve had an ongoing exchange with a graduate student about a number of things. He’s asked a question that does not have a simple answer. It will take longer than 3-4 minutes to type a response. A couple or three weeks may go by before I get back to writing to him. He knows that though cause I’ve acknowledged his message and we have a system (of sorts).
Here’s another example. I often times get requests for data from my programmatic data set.%% Sometimes, particularly if a quick exchange has indicated this is not an urgent request, those will sit for a while because I have to query the data set and then write up a brief context of the data and its limitations.
Even local questions can take a week or so. An example of that is a long, multiple part query about our certificate program. I may leave that sitting for a week to think through the response and then to send the response on the days/times that I have allotted for the tasks related to the graduate program.
Set certain days for certain tasks
One of the ways that I manage my work life has to do with using old project management techniques adapted to higher education. One of the things that kept lots of projects afloat for me when I worked in industry is that different work groups met on specific days. This way folks in the work group could plan their own work schedules and then match their workflow to other teams. This idea of allocating certain days for certain tasks adapts to higher ed since it allows me to focus one chunk of time on national service, another chunk of time on administrative work, another on working with grad students, another on research, and so on.
The same is true for my email. While I triage all my email every morning, I may not return to some it until I am ready to work on certain tasks. A great example of this is my editorial work on RHM. My days to work on RHM are Mondays and Thursdays (usually). So even if I have moved a task out of my email, I won’t work on it until I get to the day that work is assigned. Having a structured system like this helps one believe in and adapt to not having to deal with every email all at one time. And when the whole system works, your confidence grows. But you have to try and stick to it for awhile.
Use rules or folders to organize
Remember that you are in charge of your inbox. Not all the folks sending you things nor your department chair or your students. YOU. This means you need to use all the features of your inbox to your advantage.
There is much truth to the un-enroll idea, that is, get yourself off of all the lists or discounts or other things that come with our daily lives online. OR send those things to a folder or a place where you only check them every so often. Eliminating the clutter from your inbox immediately reduces the numbers (and therefore your stress) and it helps you to focus in on the important messages in your inbox.
Be transparent about your system
I am totally ok in letting things sit for a couple of days. None priority items may sit up to a week these days before I am able to send a response.
But, during triage, I really try to get folks information to let them I got their message and I will act on it and often, giving them a day by which I will act on it.
I also let my colleagues and students know how long things will take. All of this helps you feel like you are in control and allows you to get to doing the work rather emailing about the work.
Find your inbox comfort zone
I would love to be an inbox zero person, but I have long since let that go. Why? Because of the volume of email I get there are always a number of things that aren’t immediate and aren’t a true task, but still warrant a response. I can definitely point you to folks who I responded to some 6, 7, 12 months later.
Graduate students and early career faculty may be reading this and thinking, “that will never happen to me.” Well, I hope it doesn’t, but I have yet to meet an academic that doesn’t have a similar story. There just comes a time (no later than the third year on the job) that all of sudden there are so many emails connected to so many things. (The same is true for many working professionals, especially if they are in any position of team lead or management. The email just never ends.)
All of this is to say that if I have managed to be in the teens in each account then I’m ok. I slowly chip away at the backlog and a couple of times a year I am oh so close to inbox zero. Knowing my inbox comfort zone helps me know when I need to spend a half a day (yup at least that) just going through and making the inbox even tidier.
This is why I also do not apologize for the time it takes me. We are all working hard and doing the best we can. I just don’t feel I need to apologize for being a human being that is not going to work 12 hour days to get to inbox zero.
These strategies may look simple, but they really aren’t. It takes patience and a dedicated commitment to trying a new approach. And even if this approach may not work for you, maybe it will shed light on the approach that will work for you.
Good luck in trying to tame the email beast.
**the dash in my long used tek-ritr account caused so much havoc with improved spam filters it got to where I had no idea who received a message or didn’t. I still use tek-ritr.com for my online presence (no, duh!), but after 20+ years I had to retire the email account.
## I do understand that folks who are differently abled or may have a chronic illness work at all hours of the day. I do that too. But since our typical work customs still revolve around what is seen as a traditional work day, 9-5, I try to confine my emails sent during that time as well as not on Sundays at all. This is my own stance of trying to encourage people to set boundaries for the work and the rest of their lives. I encourage you to set your own no matter when those work hours occur.
%% if you know anything about my research, you know this data set has been around a while and I’ve been slogging through trying to get the book done. By the end of 2019, you’ll be able to query this data set yourself!