You’ve Got Mail…Now What?

September 25, 2016

By Bryn Harris, PhD, University of Colorado Denver

As the semester kicks off, many of us have goals to be better about managing our email this academic year. This can be a challenging task, because each aspect of our work (research, teaching, and service) has email components. However, there are many strategies for managing email and some may work for you! Below, I list some of the techniques that have worked for me.

Reduce email as a distraction. I don’t know about you, but I could probably spend days of my week just on email. No one has that kind of time, especially if you are on the tenure clock. Find ways to reduce email as a distraction. Turn off your email alerts. Close your inbox during certain times of the day. Remove email from your smartphone. Figure out the ways in which email is making you less productive and problem solve solutions.

Check email at certain times during the day. Some people benefit from blocking off time on their schedule to respond to email. Picking one or two times during the day makes you more efficient as you have slotted a specific time period for email. If email requires less energy than other tasks you are working on, you may consider responding during a specific time of day. In Dr. Randy Floyd’s insightful post, he mentions that responding to emails in the evening is the most efficient use of time for him (…).

Don’t check email as your first task of the day. One of the top New York Times bestselling authors and motivational speakers, Brendan Burchard, writes that what is in your inbox is “someone else’s agenda.” When you open up your email first thing in the morning, your to-do list then becomes someone else’s to-do list. Some people find that if they spend a certain number of hours on research or teaching tasks first thing in the morning (without email!), they are more efficient the rest of the day.

Forget about having an empty inbox (also called “inbox zero”). I know many people who get stressed by how many emails they have. I will go ahead and say that it is impossible for me to have an empty inbox and I am okay with that. Know that having an empty inbox likely is an unrealistic expectation. Come up with realistic expectations for email (e.g. respond within a certain number of days, put appointments on my calendar at first email read, respond to crisis emails quickly).

Know when to respond and when to file. Someone suggested to me that if I receive an email that I can respond to in 2 minutes or less, I should do it at that time. If it will take longer, then I need to file it and put it on my to-do list or in my calendar. This advice has helped me feel more productive managing my time. Some people file emails by project name, class, or such categories as “crucial”, “action”, “side burner” etc. to indicate the importance.

Use boiler plate responses when possible. I receive many of the same emails from students over the years. I have created responses that I can use for these common questions. In addition, know when to delegate. Is the question something a student advisor could respond to? Or could the student find that information in the student handbook? Lastly, if you find yourself a writing long email, that likely means that this communication would be better in person (or on the phone).

Reframe the growing inbox. Often, when my inbox is at its largest it is when I am working on a large project, an article that must be submitted, or other significant program responsibilities. Try to minimize the stress of a growing inbox but reminding yourself of the work you are completing. Last I checked, no one evaluated my email abilities in my tenure dossier!

Create a program philosophy regarding email communication. Many programs have documented in their program handbooks the agreed upon time that professors will respond to email (i.e., three business days).  The students will benefit from understanding expectations surrounding email and will be less likely to send last minute emails that potentially disrupt your tasks.

The power of the out of office! Pick one day during the week (or on a schedule you desire) where you put your out of office on. Use this day to unapologetically work on tasks that are important to you and not feel the need to check your email.

What strategies do you use to manage your email? Did you try one of these strategies? How did it go?

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