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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Managing email

Every once in a while, one of the list-servs I'm on will get messages from people who want to be removed from the list (and apparently don't know how to look for the instructions about how to do so). This morning, there were several on the TBL list-serv and one person added the explanatory note "too many emails, too little time". While I understand the feeling, I also sort of don't. I mean, how many emails do academics really get? I know that compared to my friends who work in the private sector, I really don't get a lot, and I certainly don't get a lot that require immediate attention. That doesn't mean I don't read/answer my emails pretty darn quickly, but rarely do I need to respond as quickly as I do.

However, I do know that when I see there is something in my inbox, I have a tendency to want to drop whatever I'm doing and see what that message is. So I've set up a system where I don't immediately see a lot of the emails that I know don't need my immediate attention. Specifically, I have multiple email addresses and I only have the inbox for one of them open all the time. I have a yahoo account that I've had forever that I use strictly for personal situations where I know I will never need to reply to the emails, like customer accounts and groupon-type stuff. I only check that once a day, while drinking my morning coffee. The second is my official university address which gets all official University communications (which never need a reply). I actually stopped using that account, as much as possible, a few years ago because it was getting so much spam but now that the school has moved to Gmail (and a spam filter that actually works), I also use it for other work-related situations where I likely won't have to reply, such as professional organizations, journal table of contents, ed policy mailing lists, etc. I check that once a day too, sometimes more if I'm procrastinating from other things. Since it is my official university address, I occasionally get emails there from people who have looked me up for some specific reason but it is really rare that those emails can't wait the 12-18 hours it usually takes for me to see them. And then there is my main gmail account that I use for almost everything else. That's the inbox that stays open all the time, and I get a pop-up notice whenever I get new mail, but since practically all of the 'form emails' I might get are routed to one of the other two accounts, a) I don't get a ton of emails coming into that address and b) when I do get a message, it's almost always something that I want to see fairly quickly.

I also have an entirely separate gmail address that I give to students. I have that account set up to automatically forward all emails to my main gmail account, and then I filter those so they bypass the inbox and go into a separate folder (but still marked unread). That way, I don't see that I have new messages in my inbox (so I don't get interrupted) but when I get other new messages (or just when I want to take a break from whatever I'm doing anyway), I'll see that there are emails in the student folder. I've found that this is a good compromise for me - I typically respond to students within, at most, a few hours, but I don't obsess about it the way I think I would if they showed up in my inbox and I got pinged every time.

I'm sure there are easier ways to do all this but this works well for me. How do you manage your email?


  1. In using filters and separate folders, you are 90% of the way there.

    I'd recommend:-

    - Remove temptation and eliminate interruptions: get rid of those pop-ups. Turn off all notifications from your email program. Better yet, close it down entirely when you're not using it as below.

    - Set aside two 10-minute periods per day to process your inboxes. (They could be up to 30 minutes, if necessary, or you could use more than two, if you must.) Set these up to recur every working day in your calendar program, and set your calendar to give an alarm (or send an SMS) at the start of each of these periods. Also block out daily time for more lengthy replies, and possibly another time for student emails if they are time-consuming.

    - When processing your inboxes allow yourself two minutes for each email at a maximum. Use David Allen's four-D rule: Can I Delete this email? Delegate it? Do it now within two minutes? (whatever "do it" means: reply, add an appointment to your calendar, etc.) Or must I Defer it for a considered response - and if so, should I tell the sender? (Ask those questions in that order.) Empty your inbox(es) each time.

    - Advertise your email response times. Point out that emails should be treated like postcards: assume that they are public (this is a fact of life), keep them short, and don't use them for urgent matters - that's what SMS is for.

    - Ensure a few highly trusted (and skeptical) co-workers have your mobile number for those truly urgent matters. Keep your mobile on you! (If everyone already has your mobile number, buy another mobile phone to use for this.)

    1. Thanks Greg! I'm not quite this obsessive about avoiding email, though I'm sure these suggestions will be helpful for anyone trying to get their email under better control. I don't mind the notifications partly because I just don't feel like I get all that much and partly because there are times when I really do want to know right away when certain messages come in (like when I'm waiting for a co-author to get back to me about something). I'm also getting a lot better about just ignoring notifications for emails I really don't need to respond to, if I'm in the middle of something, but I know that's a problem for a lot of people.

  2. "Every once in a while, one of the list-servs I'm on will get messages from people who want to be removed from the list (and apparently don't know how to look for the instructions about how to do so)."

    Strangely, I looked at my email right after I read your post, and found one of these...

    One thing I've done is tell my students to use the email option inside our CMS to send me mail about course-related stuff. I do this because it saves me the problem of figuring out whether a message (generally with no subject line) is real or spam; many of my students use what one might cann non-professional personal email addresses.


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