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Finding E-Mail Equilibrium

October 16, 2013

For all the benefits of e-mail (and undoubtedly there are many), it is too often a source of stress and distraction, limiting its potential positive effects on productivity. While there is the occasional message with exciting welcomed news such as a journal article acceptance or a student winning an award, more often than not, a new message signals additional obligations and to-do items. For years I have been adopting various strategies to deal with the onslaught of e-mail, but my approaches continued to leave me increasingly anxious about my Inbox.

I have finally settled on a system that has significantly reduced e-mail as a source of stress. Now that I have had the new system in place for over two months and it has continued to work well, I am ready to share it -- confident that it can make a difference.

I’ll start by noting that I use separate accounts for personal e-mail and professional communication. There are several reasons for doing so. First, many university IT agreements require employees to agree that use of the system is for professional purposes only. While I recognize it is rare that anyone checks, I still prefer to adhere to such rules to the extent possible. Second, as with most employer e-mail accounts, the university may search e-mail correspondence on its system, and who wants personal messages included in such fishing expeditions? Third, it is easier to avoid embarrassing scenarios resulting from entering the wrong person’s e-mail address in the "to" or "cc" fields if no professional contacts exist on the system one uses for personal communication and vice versa.

I have an additional reason for separating the two types of messages that is more directly related to productivity, however. I am in a different frame of mind when I correspond with friends and family about personal matters than when I am checking work e-mail. Accordingly, even from a cognitive perspective I find it helpful to have them separated. Although I have both accounts open constantly and often check them concurrently, I nonetheless find it useful to have a wall between the two types of correspondence.

Part of my system involves quite a bit of automatic filtering of messages. I subscribe to various professional mailing lists, but few of these ever show up in my Inbox. Many of these are automatically routed to topic-specific folders. I check those occasionally, but there is no reason for them to clutter and distract from day-to-day exchanges with colleagues and students. Since listserv messages usually involve the same "from" or "to" address or something systematic in the subject line, those attributes of the message can be used to set up automatic filters on many e-mail systems.

I also have a system set up to filter students’ course-related messages to a special folder. The reason for this is to help those messages stand out and not get lost in the clutter of all other inbox contents. There are various ways to achieve this. I give students a specific e-mail address to use when sending me course-related messages. I mention the significance of this in the first class, I include it on the syllabus and whenever I e-mail students, I do so from that address so any reply automatically goes there. I then use that "to" field information to filter messages accordingly.

For those not inclined to use a separate address, faculty can ask students to include a unique phrase or acronym in the subject line of their messages that one can then use for filtering purposes. A possible acronym would correspond to the course’s title and I would ask that students include it in brackets. For example, for my course titled “Managing Your Online Reputation”, the unique identifier would be [MYOR]. Indeed, I start the subject line of my course-related correspondence to students with that moniker. While students are not always great about following such instructions, explaining to them that the purpose of this is to prioritize their messages over other people’s often helps get the point across. If they forget then one reminder usually gets them on track. Since I require weekly memos from all of my undergraduate and graduate students (I mainly teach seminars), I receive many messages from students regularly and this system has helped me keep on top of all that correspondence.

I am very rigorous about putting messages into folders/organizing them by labels (“folder” vs. “label” will depend on the particular system). While moving something to the appropriate folder/label may only take a few seconds, those seconds can add up when you’re going through many dozens of messages daily. Accordingly, I have set up automated labeling of certain messages so that I can archive the message in the appropriate folder with one keystroke instead of having to find the appropriate folder/label every time. For example, most messages from our departmental administrator will concern departmental matters so I have a filter set on her name so that anything from her is automatically attached to my departmental folder. While e-mail search functionality can be helpful, it is often beneficial to restrict a search to a folder, which this system facilitates. Finally, I also divert all commercial correspondence to folders by using yet a different address with companies.

The above approaches I have had in place for years and they have served me well. I see fewer messages in my inbox than most due to some of the automatic filtering I do. I can easily distinguish which messages are from students about course work. And I can quickly organize content into appropriate folders, which eases retrieval of relevant messages later. Nonetheless, the volume of e-mail hitting my Inbox began getting overwhelming. I had a hard time keeping track of what still required a response, not to mention what necessitated considerable actions on my part before being able to reply to the sender.I had tried the starring system, using different color stars to indicate what still required action, but I did a bad job following up on these starred messages and important items fell through the cracks. I then started marking messages unread when they still required handling, but this led to my rereading subject lines I had already consulted numerous times, each time getting stressed about what work still remained to get it out of my Inbox and off my to-do list.

This is where my new system comes in. I created four folders: 1Do, 1Pending, 1Read, 1Respond. The reason they each have a 1 up front is that the system I use displays folders/labels alphabetically and I wanted these to be on top of the labels list always visible and easily accessible.

The rule – and adherents of the Getting Things Done philosophy will recognize this – is that you should only have to look at any message in your Inbox once. If you can respond to it right away, do so. If not then move it into the 1Respond folder (these tend to include fairly quick and straight forward matters that nonetheless you may not have the time or headspace to address when you first read the message). If replying requires some additional work (e.g., reading a student’s draft paper, submitting the abstract of your talk to your host at a seminar, filling out a form) then I move it to the 1Do folder. If my response is needed, but is contingent on an additional factor over which I do not have control (e.g., a colleague has to supply information first; I have to make decisions about some travel before knowing if I am available on certain days) then the message belongs in the 1Pending folder. Finally, if it concerns content I want to read, but do not have time for at the moment and it will not require a response from me (e.g., the latest table of contents of a journal issue or the daily Inside Higher Ed mailing) then it goes in the 1Read folder.

This system has resulted in my inbox often containing no unread messages, which is much less stressful for me than what my account used to look like before. The important thing is to check the various folders regularly to make sure you are tending to them. Whenever I have even just a few minutes (e.g., in between meetings) and am in the right frame of mind, I open the 1Respond folder and see what I can address. I do the same for the 1Do folder. If I am idling somewhere (like waiting for a talk to start, standing in a line or just want to catch up on some reading) then I click on the 1Read folder. Once or twice a week, I glance at the 1Pending folder to see if I can address anything in it yet. As soon as I am done with a message, I archive it.

As long as you make it a point to return to these folders with some regularity (and I have not found that hard to do), messages do not seem to fall through the cracks. While it may take a bit longer for some colleagues to receive a response from me, I rarely take more than 48 hours, which still seems quite reasonable and is certainly quicker than the turnaround time I get from many people on my correspondence list.

If you have been struggling with e-mail logistics, I recommend trying out the above. I also welcome suggestions for how to improve upon what I described or what other systems have worked for people.

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