A free template for keeping track of your pre-tenure achievements
I'm a certified coach and associate professor of philosophy at the
University of San Francisco
The ultimate guide to service for pre-tenure faculty
7 minute read
I have a theory about email that is inspired by Harry Potter (bear with me). In the Deathly Hallows, Harry, Hermione, and Ron enter a subterranean vault at Gringotts in search of a horcrux (if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, you don’t need to know the details). The vault is full of treasure: gold coins, and candelabra, and other glittering, aristocratic household accouterments. As they begin to look around, guided by the dim light of their wands (I said bear with me!), Hermione picks up a jeweled goblet and then drops it in alarm (the metal is hot and burns her hand). But this treasure has more magic than that. As it falls, the goblet multiplies into two identical goblets, which multiply again into four more, which multiply again and again until the first goblet “became a shower of goblets” and, within seconds, “the floor was covered in identical cups rolling in every direction.”
My theory is this: email works the same way. Every email you respond to generates a cascade of subsequent emails, until your inbox is overflowing with missives pulsing eagerly as they await your attention. The more we send emails, the more emails we get, until our inboxes are full to the brim (except there is no brim). It’s no wonder that the average knowledge worker spends about 28% of their workweek managing email (NB: this stat is from 2014.)
So how do you save yourself from drowning in a rising tide of email messages? Here are six strategies.
If you want to spend less time on email, the first step is to check your email less often. Turn off notifications, and stop refreshing your inbox every 10 minutes (this is how often the typical knowledge worker checks their inbox). Instead, schedule blocks of time (e.g., 30-60 minutes) dedicated to email (read more about time blocking here) and don’t check your email outside of those blocks. I typically check my email once after lunch and once at the end of my workday (5pm), but a different schedule may work better for you. The point is not to do exactly as I do, but to adapt these strategies to your situation. Here’s a great post on how to batch email, including some great advice for those who are worried that email batching will make them appear unresponsive (tldr; it won’t).
The Inbox Zero method involves processing every email the first time you encounter it by deciding which of the following five actions you will take:
After reading the message, determine whether it requires any action or if it contains information you’ll need later. If not, delete it or archive it (archived messages are searchable and reappear in you inbox when someone else responds to them).
If you’re not the right person to address the email, forward it to the appropriate person then delete or archive it.
If you can answer the email quickly, respond immediately and then delete or archive the message.
If a response requires more than a few minutes to respond, or will take some work (thinking, finding info, etc.), defer your response until a more appropriate time. Decide when you will act on the email, and snooze the message until then.
If the email requires a task that should be completed right away, do it now and be done with it (otherwise defer, see above). Then archive or delete the message.
I struggled with insomnia for a long time (not anymore!). Somewhere along the way I realized that one of the most significant impediments to my falling asleep was working too late, especially if that work was done in front of a screened device like my laptop or phone. (You’ve probably heard a million times that screens disrupt sleep, but here’s a quick refresher.) One of the best things I’ve done for my sleep, stress levels, and overall work/life balance is to abstain from email on evenings and weekends. I announce this in my email signature (“I observe email-free evenings and weekends”) and on my syllabi, so that my students and colleagues know not to expect a response between the hours of 5pm and 9am PST (you could also set an automatic response in Gmail, or use an app like SaneBox). I have received exactly zero complaints about this practice since I instituted it several years ago, and pretty quickly started receiving fewer emails on evenings and weekends (a key data point for my Harry Potter email theory).
Before I removed my work email from my phone, I frequently checked my work email mindlessly. It was automatic. In line at the grocery store. In the waiting room at the dentist’s office. During meetings. While sitting on the couch ostensibly watching TV with my husband. My thumb slid over the screen so easily and habitually, that I ended up checking my email without consciously deciding to do so.
Removing your work email (or, more drastically, the email app) from your phone, short circuits these hard-to-break habits. It is what James Clear calls environment design: “the central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.” Removing (work) email from your phone increases friction (you’d have to take several conscious steps in order to access your inbox) and thereby helps you break the habit of checking email when you’d rather not.
Something I’ve heard from faculty reluctant to kick their email habit is that the time they spend on email everyday simply can’t be reduced given the number of urgent and time-sensitive messages they receive. I grant that some email messages truly are time sensitive (e.g., there is a power outage in your lab which jeopardizes the experiment you’re running), but I suspect that significantly fewer emails are genuinely urgent than we think. For me, that I-must-stop-everything-now-and-attend-to-this-immediately feeling is often just my anxiety talking.
So I like to ask myself: is it urgent or is it anxiety? Most of the time, it’s anxiety and this helps me to talk back to that anxious voice inside my head so I can remain focused on what I am doing rather than incessantly refreshing my inbox.
When others pressure you to feel as though their emails must take priority (if I had a dollar for every non-urgent email I received from a student with the subject line “EMERGENCY” I wouldn’t be rich but I could probably pay for a one-month, add-free Hulu subscription), more often than not, what’s really going on is one or more of the following:
I want you to attend to this right away because it would make my life easier. (It is not your duty to make their life easier, especially when doing so makes your life harder.)
I want you to attend to this right away because I didn’t plan ahead. (Don’t rob other people of their problems.)
I want you to attend to this right away because that’s what I am used to. (People can get used to new things.)
I want you to attend to this right away because I’m anxious about it. (It’s not urgent, it’s anxiety.)
Reminding myself that there are a number of reasons why others want me to respond to their emails immediately, very few of which constitute a genuine emergency, helps me stick to the practices listed above.
I discovered the following tip in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (I recommend it, but I can’t do so without noting that Newport’s examples are, with few exceptions, a freaking endless succession of dudes—as if he’s never encountered a woman capable of working deeply. Cue Liz Lemon eye roll.)
Back to the tip. Newport observes, correctly, that many of the emails we receive (and undoubtedly send) take seconds to fire off, but end up being huge time sucks, often because of the successive messages they inevitably generate. A good process-centric response to these emails “closes the loop” by minimizing the number of follow ups required.
Here’s an example: “It was great to meet you last week. I’d love to follow up on some of those issues we discussed. Do you want to grab coffee?”
Typically, such a request produces many more email messages, as you go back and forth, exchanging pleasantries and trying to identify a time to meet. As an alternative, Newport suggests crafting something like the following message (I’ve emphasized “something like” because I think his prose is jarring, but you’re a smart person so you’ll get the point):
“I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll hash out a time that works. Looking forward to it.”
The basic idea is that you can save yourself time and energy in the long run by expending just a bit more effort on your initial response. The more effortful response closes the loop on the request so that you (1) receive fewer emails about it, and (2) don’t end up with a string of incomplete requests taking up space in the back of your mind as you try to focus on something else.